Guatemala: Nation's highest court throws out Ríos Montt genocide trial verdict and prison sentence

Ríos Montt testifying in his defense in Guatemala City, May 2013. Photo: Xeni Jardin.

Late-breaking news from Guatemala City: Impunity reigns in Guatemala tonight.

The Constitutional Court, the highest court in Guatemala (like the US Supreme Court), has just voted to annul the proceedings in the Rios Montt genocide trial from April 19th onward. That was the date on which the trial was temporarily suspended, when defense attorneys initiated a conflict between courts over which judge should oversee the case.

On May 10, Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 80 years in prison. That verdict and sentence were today thrown out by the Constitutional Court.

Three Constitutional Court judges voted in favor of the annulment. Two voted against. The court today also upheld the not-guilty verdict in the case of Rios Montt's former head of intelligence (the director of the notorious G-2 unit), José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez.

The language of the Constitutional Court's ruling states that the phase of the trial in which victim testimony was delivered is still intact. But it's possible that this effectively means the whole trial is annulled, and that there must be a new trial, or that there is no posssibility of a guilty verdict. Reporters and international observers I've spoken to aren't exactly sure what is next, as far as whether a trial on the same charges will in fact be re-convened and repeated, or whether Rios Montt, 86, is now guaranteed to be a free man for the rest of his life. The full text of the Constitutional Court's ruling will be available soon, and I'll post more after speaking with people who are still in Guatemala who have a copy of the court documents.

Bottom line: Ríos Montt is a free man tonight. The overturning of the historic guilty verdict in this trial is a huge, though not unexpected blow, to justice.

It is an unimaginable blow to each of the Ixil Maya victims, and others, who suffered abuses during the US-backed military dictator's 17-month reign.

About 100 Ixil survivors testified during the trial.

Rios Montt was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, and with the deaths of nearly 2,000 Ixil Maya from 1982-1983.

Whatever happens with the trial, however, the world is watching. The world must keep watching. The world has listened to the testimonies of the Ixil Maya victims who spoke in the courtroom, and the world must not forget.

"Si, hubo genocidio," the hashtags and the courtroom chants proclaimed. "Yes, there was genocide."

Elizabeth Malkin in the New York Times:

The attorney general's office is expected to appeal the court's 3-2 ruling on Tuesday.

Although the verdict was celebrated by international human rights organizations, it was controversial in Guatemala. The Constitutional Court was the target of a lobbying campaign by opponents of the verdict as it considered several defense injunctions it had failed to rule on during the trial.

Perhaps the most important campaign was by Guatemala's powerful business federation, known as Cacif for the initials of its Spanish name. Representing the country's deeply conservative oligarchy, Cacif urged the court to overturn the verdict. The court "has the power in its hands to contribute to the governability and assure an effective rule of law," the business group said.

Ríos Montt and US President Ronald Reagan, 1982. Reagan lobbied effectively for military and financial support for Rios Montt's military regime, despite reports that the Army was committing gross human rights violations against the country's majority indigenous population.