BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Guatemala must ensure a prompt and fair retrial of former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt to bring justice to victims of its civil war and bolster a fragile democracy and justice system in the Central American nation, International Crisis Group said on Monday.
In May, Guatemala's highest court overturned a historic conviction against 86-year-old Rios Montt. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the killings by state security forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil indigenous group during his rule from 1982 to 1983.
Rios Montt's conviction had been hailed as a victory for war victims and a justice system in a country still recovering from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, during which around 200,000 people died and 45,000 disappeared.
A United Nations-backed Truth Commission set up under the 1996 peace accords concluded that the military was responsible for more than 85 percent of human rights violations during the war.
“The indigenous Maya people, who were massacred and otherwise victimised in large numbers, have waited 30 years for justice. The outcome of this case will send a strong message about rule of law under Guatemala's still fragile democracy,” Mary Speck, senior Guatemala analyst at International Crisis Group (ICG), said in a statement.
The abrupt annulment of Rios Montt’s conviction has raised questions of outside interference, particularly from powerful economic and political interests, ICG, a Brussels-based think-tank, said in its latest Guatemala report.
“What began as a history-making attempt to provide justice for the victims of one of Latin America’s most brutal counter-insurgency campaigns has floundered amid accusations of political bias and outside interference,” the ICG report said.
The case against Rios Montt and former director of military intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez has been passed to a new tribunal, the ICG report said, though legal challenges make its renewal uncertain and a date has not yet been set for the trial to restart.
“Human rights attorneys and prosecutors suspect the defence is playing for time, hoping to delay proceedings until 2015, when Guatemala may have a new attorney general less willing to pursue controversial human rights cases,” the report said.
If and when proceedings resume, the new judges will have to rehear testimony from dozens of victims, including women who were gang raped by soldiers and other human rights atrocities carried out by security forces.
Guatemala’s judicial system will be once again put to the test next year, when it begins the process of selecting nominees for a new Supreme Court and other appeals tribunals and either chooses a new attorney general or gives the current attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, another term.
“Political authorities should act urgently to ensure that candidates are selected on merit in a transparent process that enhances the prestige and independence of judges. At stake is the ability to deal with not just past abuses, but also the crime and corruption threatening democracy today,” the report said.