It was exasperating and depressing to learn that José Efraín Ríos Montt has escaped justice – on technicalities.
Rios Montt, 86, was found guilty on May 10 of overseeing the killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil population during his 1982-83 rule. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
However, in a ruling on Monday, the country’s Constitutional Court ordered that all the proceedings be voided going back to April 19, when one of the presiding judges suspended the trial because of a dispute with another judge over who should hear it.
It was unclear when the trial might restart.
At the time the row broke out between the judges, a number of appeals were lodged with the Constitutional Court over alleged irregularities in the handling of the case.
One related to Francisco Garcia, one of Rios Montt’s defense lawyers, who had just won an appeal to be readmitted to the case. Garcia was thrown out when the trial began for repeatedly trying to have two of the three presiding judges recused.
When Garcia was reinstated, he tried to recuse the judges again, but they rejected his bid and proceeded with the case.
The Constitutional Court said the judges should have suspended the trial until the recusal attempt had been officially resolved. A spokesman for the court could not say how the recusal bid needed to be formally settled.
How could this happen?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask you, in terms of the implications of this—of the proceedings in this Ríos Montt trial to the current government of Guatemala, and your sense of whether current government officials were also implicated or involved in some of the genocide that was conducted against the Mayan people?
HELEN MACK: I think that the—precisely, because we have a president that is a military, many other people feel that is a threat for transitional justice. And in Guatemala, there has been a spirit of— espíritu de cuerpo?
KATE DOYLE: Esprit de corps?
HELEN MACK: Esprit de corps that they prefer to be convicted before they talk, because there is a blood—
KATE DOYLE: Oath.
HELEN MACK: Yeah. And—
AMY GOODMAN: A kind of blood oath.
HELEN MACK: Yeah. If they talk, I mean, that’s why—because that’s what had happened in Argentina. When someone started talking, it was like the domino effect. And that’s what they are trying not to happen in Guatemala. So that is why it’s so hard to get convictions in Guatemala or to make military to talk. So it’s about the importance of the documents that the National Security Archive has done, it’s a documentary evidence. And then you have testimonies that verified that that was truth and that’s what’s happened.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in the case of Myrna, your sister, an appeals court later overturned the conviction, just like we’re seeing with Ríos Montt.
HELEN MACK: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: But then, last year, it was reinstated—in 2003, rather, about 10 years ago, it was reinstated by the Supreme Court. Kate Doyle, do you see that possibility? Where can this case go? So, the case has been thrown out by this court, but it’s not necessarily over.
KATE DOYLE: Absolutely not. I mean, it’s not over by any means. The survivors of the massacres, who spoke the first time around in March and April, are waiting in the wings, and if they have to speak again, they will speak again. Excuse me. The prosecutors are preparing to fight for their case. And there is no doubt in my mind that the team that brought this case to trial, that spent more than 10 years doing that—and, really, we should talk, when we talk about the survivors, spent more than 30 years doing that, saving those stories for this moment. That team is waiting to proceed. And the kinds of legal manipulation we’ve seen in this case, as Helen pointed out, has happened over and over again. It’s not just in the case of the assassination of her sister; it’s in many other cases. And this is par for the course for the defense team in Guatemala. Unfortunately, they don’t have a legal argument to protect their client, and so they are using legal manipulation to try to game the system.
We can only hope these legalistic shenanigans don’t prejudice a future trial, and that Ríos Montt dies in prison – a fate too good for this mass murderer.