Guatemala genocide trial status in limbo as legal power struggle continues

VIDEO: Relatives of people killed during Guatemala's armed conflict hold up a banner with the names of the dead, during a protest on April 22, 2013 outside the Constitutional Court in Guatemala City. (Xeni Jardin for Boing Boing)

Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive and the Open Society Justice Initiative's has the most accurate summary I've found of today's confusing and widely mis-reported legal developments in the Guatemala genocide trial of General Rios Montt and former head of intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez:

Today the Constitutional Court sowed chaos and confusion in a trial that last Friday (April 19) was probably two or three days away from its conclusion. The only steps remaining were hearing the testimony of whatever remaining witnesses the defense could muster, and hearing the closing arguments of prosecution and defense lawyers.

It is impossible to summarize accurately what happened without having access to the Constitutional Court (CC) decision. (It should be available tonight.) The first press conference held by the CC today was so incoherent that the press complained and they had to convene a second one. Two important things will happen tomorrow that will help clarify matters: CALDH will hold a press conference at 10am to explain how they plan to respond to the latest developments, and the Attorney General's office will make some kind of statement to the same effect.

Meanwhile what I understand from reading the press, Twitter posts, messages from the new OSJI monitor Lisa Laplante, and emails from some of the stakeholders is the following:

1- The CC has not "annulled" the trial: it has not yet ruled on the legality of the move to annul by Judge Patricia Flores.

2- The CC has not dismissed Judge Barrios. The Barrios tribunal's role in the case has been suspended until Patricia Flores can rule on the status of defense evidence. It can be suspended for up to ten days.

3- The CC has ordered Barrios to send the case back to Flores within two hours and Flores then has 24-48 hours to resolve the limited and technical question of whether defense evidence was incorporated properly and how to incorporate it.

4- The decision to return the case to Flores may signify a rollback of the trial to some earlier point. Not clear why or to what point, yet.

5- The CC found that Rios Montt's right to defense was violated and needs to be retored. As a result the CC granted provisional appeal to Ríos Montt for his lack of attorney on the opening day of the trial (March 19), which, he claims, left him in a state of "indefensión." The CC will have to rule on the merits of that appeal down the road.

6- According to Plaza Pública, the CC resolved 6 issues and continues to work on 7 outstanding issues. Not clear what they are but the CC will produce more resolutions by end of the week or Monday.

7- Almost across the board, the press reacted too swiftly unfolding non-events in a staggeringly unprofessional way, throwing speculation onto their websites dressed as "news" and then later changing the information without actually retracting their previous statements. A notable exception was Plaza Pública.

That's all I've got.

To reiterate, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala has not ruled on the legality of Judge Flores' decision or the potential annulment of the entire trial.

It is possible that the court will make such a decision tomorrow, Wednesday April 24, around noon Guatemala time.

And in related news, word today from the US State Department that Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J. Rapp will travel to Guatemala starting tomorrow, Wednesday April 24, through April 26, to "attend meetings and consultations related to the trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt."

Retired General and former head of state, José Efraín Ríos Montt, and retired General José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez are standing trial for genocide and crimes against humanity stemming from Ríos Montt's rule from 1982-1983. The trial has been temporarily suspended awaiting one or more rulings from Guatemala's Constitutional Court. The Ríos Montt trial is historic in that it is the first prosecution of a former head of state at the national level for genocide. Ambassador Rapp will meet with U.S. Government and Embassy officials, local victims groups, and other international officials, including staff from the United Nations Development Program. In the event that the trial resumes while he is in Guatemala, the Ambassador will attend.

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