How a Guatemalan Dictator Got Off the Hook for Genocide

PHOTO: Former Guatemalan dictator (1982-1983) Efrain Rios Montt (86), is seen during his trial on charges of genocide committed during his regime, in Guatemala City on May 9, 2013.

Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images

Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned a historic sentence against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt on Monday, arguing that procedural errors occurred during his trial.

This shocking decision temporarily saves Rios Montt from being put in the local slammer for genocide. The former Guatemalan dictator and once-ally of Ronald Reagan, had been sentenced on May 10 to 80 years in prison for allowing his forces to systematically kill hundreds of members of the indigenous Ixil group. The killings were part of an attempt to stamp out communist guerrillas in the Central American country.

So how did Rios Montt, (temporarily) get off the hook for something as big as a genocide conviction?

Rios Montt says he is innocent. But it seems that his legal team's best tactic was to go after the judges who presided over the case.

On Monday the country's Constitutional Court said that the judges who presided over the Rios Montt case issued a sentence before fully resolving complaints by the defense about Jazmin Barrios, one of the three judges who convicted the former dictator.

Francisco Garcia Gudiel, one of Rios Montt's lawyers, argued since the beginning of the trial that judge Barrios was biased against him. He said that there was a history of courtroom confrontations between himself and the judge, which merited her removal from the case.

Barrios had Gudiel removed from the courtroom after he tried to challenge her legitimacy, and would not allow proceedings to continue. But this enabled Rios Montt's team to tell the Constitutional Court that their client had been deprived of the lawyer of his choice.

Some legal observers argue that Rios Montt purposefully looked for a confrontation between his lawyers and the judges in an attempt to incite this kind of technicality.

Geoff Thale, a Guatemala expert at the Washington Office on Latin America who has closely monitored the trial, said that Rios Montt changed his legal team on the first day of the trial and purposefully added Gudiel to his staff, knowing that this lawyer had a checkered history with one of the judges.

Thale said that evidence presented during the trial clearly showed that Rios Montt allowed his soldiers to burn indigenous villages, kill members of the Ixil group, and herd them into camps because it was suspected that this group sympathized with guerilla fighters. Yet that was not enough to get the conviction to stick, and survive the defense's argument that Rios Montt did not receive a fair trail.

At this point, the case will have to be retried. The constitutional judges who overturned the original verdict also said that all testimony and evidence entered after April 19, the date in which the judges allegedly failed to answer the defense's complaint, must be re-introduced.

Thale says the prosecution will now likely look for ways to retry Rios Montt and once again show the judges evidence that was ruled out because it was presented in court after April 19.

This could be challenging, as many of the witnesses who took the stand after this date were indigenous people from isolated rural villages. Thale said it could be hard to bring these folks back to the courtroom in Guatemala City, not only because they come from faraway places, but also because they may have lost their faith in the country's legal system.

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