Guatemala—Rios Montt genocide trial, Day 20. Will case be thrown out by Constitutional Court?

Rios Montt, moments after his attorneys walked out in protest today, seated alone w/co-defendant Sanchez. Photo: @xeni.

I am blogging from inside the Guatemalan Supreme Court in Guatemala City this morning, on day 20 of the trial of former Guatemalan General and genocide and de factor dictator Rios Montt, and his then-head of intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. Ríos Montt's 1982-1983 regime was supported by the United States; during this era many thousands of non-combatant civilians were killed.

UPDATE, 9:48am Guatemala time: Attorneys for Rios Montt just walked out of the courtroom in protest; they'd demanded the trial to be canceled. Ríos Montt's supporters stand and cheer. Judge Jazmin Barrios yells "Stop! Stop!" after them; demands that security follow defense lawyers and bring them back to the courtroom; her order met with massive screams and cheers and applause throughout courtroom. Ríos Montt speaks for the first time: I'm trying to call my attorneys, but they aren't answering. I have another lawyer, but he's busy with another case. Co-defendant Sanchez tells judge he lacks funds to hire a new lawyer. Barrios offers to provide them with public defenders. Follow this Twitter list for live tweets from the courtroom.

Today, the defense renewed their demands that the trial be shut down and annulled. Supreme Court Judge Jazmin Barrios has denied their request. Judge Carol Patricia Flores will convene the Constitutional Court of Guatemala at 2pm to consider suspending the trial, as the defense have demanded.

It's not clear what will happen today, but it seems the trial will likely come to some form of closure today or tomorrow.

Rios Montt's fate now essentially rests in the hands of 2 female judges. As one reporter said, "One gets the sense the shit is about to hit the fan."

My report from Tuesday's proceedings is here; my post from Wednesday is here.

From a recap by Kate Doyle at

Wednesday, April 17, was a chaotic and tense day in the courtroom. Judge Yassmin Barrios began by observing that once again only two defense witnesses were present to testify before the tribunal, while some ten witnesses remained to be heard. The judge ordered Ríos Montt's counsel, Marco Antonio Cornejo, to leave the room and personally call each of them on the phone to advise them that they were legally required to attend. Before permitting Cornejo to exit, she called the first witness present, Gustavo Porras, into the chamber and asked him to take his place in the witness chair facing the tribunal. Porras and the entire courtroom of several hundred spectators then waited in silence until the lawyer returned some 15 minutes later.

Things became more dramatic as the day went on.

In the Guatemalan Supreme Court, reporters swarm as appeal introduced by Constitutional Court to throw out genocide trial. Photo: @xeni.

Judge Barrios ended the trial early at mid-day, because the defense lacked admissible evidence, nor were qualified witnesses present. And then, minutes after the court adjourned, a representative from Guatemala's Constitutional Court came in with a document, and approached the prosecution's table. A sudden rush of reporters swarmed the table; it was an "amparo," or appeal, proposing that the trial be thrown out.

The Constitutional Court is set to decide whether to annul the case at 2pm today. Meanwhile, the trial keeps moving forward in Judge Jazmin Barrios' courtroom, here inside the Supreme Court building.

The Constitutional Court has issued similar appeals to close down the tribunal multiple times (three, I believe?); none have succeeded. But that doesn't mean this new one won't.

The defense attorneys seemed calm, confident, and pleased when the Constitutional Court's appeal document was hand-delivered moments after court ended. And it's good news for the defense.

Speaking to a reporter moments after the "amparo" was delivered, defense Marco Antonio Rossell said the trial was unjust and must be suspended for its many faults. Rossell is best known in Guatemala for defending the man who was ultimately convicted of murdering Guatemalan Roman Catholic bishop and human rights defender Juan José Gerardi Conedera.

Represented in the courtroom throughout the trial: members of the Guatemalan Foundation Against Terrorism, who support Ríos Montt, condemn the trial, and who published a 20-page insert in the Sunday paper here.

The insert linked those supporting the existence of the genocide trial to the International Marxist Conspiracy, which they say was enabled by subversive members of the Catholic Church.

This trial is unprecedented: it is the first time any former head of state has been tried in a domestic court for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Kate Doyle wrote more here about the strong statements of concern, including from Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, polarizing public opinion in Guatemala around the trial.

The historic trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity of Efrain Ríos Montt, the former general who ruled Guatemala from 1982-3, has been ongoing since March 19. After nearly five weeks, the trial is expected to come to a close later this week.

However, in recent days there has been very strong pressure in opposition to the trial from prominent voices in Guatemala, and assertions that the trial is inconsistent with peace in the country—indeed that the trial is "betraying the peace and dividing Guatemala." This statement was formally endorsed on Tuesday by Guatemala's President Otto Perez Molina.

And since Monday, it has been clear that the environment both inside and outside of the Supreme Court's third floor courtroom has become very tense. And, all of this is taking place in a nation where political violence and common street violence are widespread. But there is a sense that this story is moving rapidly toward some form of closure.

Here's a Twitter list of observers who have been diligently live-tweeting from the trial. Among them: NISGUA Guate (Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala), Plaza Publica, and Rios Montt Trial (a project of the Open Society Initiative).

Many observers in Guatemala who are anti-Ríos Montt, pro-civilian-victims are tweeting with the hashtag #SiHuboGenocidio. A quick search of that hashtag is an interesting glimpse into one element of the Guatemalan zeitgeist.