Leiden Law Blog

The Guatemalan genocide trial and its impact on the struggle against impunity

The Guatemalan genocide trial and its impact on the struggle against impunity

On 10 May 2013, a Guatemalan trial court rendered a historic judgment, sentencing former president José Efraín Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity and acquitting his Chief of Military Intelligence, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, of the same charges. The case concerned crimes committed during Ríos Montt’s short reign as president of Guatemala, from March 1982 until August 1983, which constituted the deadliest period in Guatemala’s bloody 36-year civil war. The judgment was met with jubilation by the victims of Ríos Montt’s brutal rule and praise by international press and institutions. The trial, the first ever in which a former head of state was convicted for genocide in his own country, was generally regarded as an important step in the struggle against impunity for international crimes. However, this spirit of optimism did not last long. On 20 May 2013, in a 3-2 majority decision, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court annulled the trial judgment on procedural grounds and set the trial back to where it was on 19 April. The decision was decried by international observers as a defeat of justice. Impunity, it seemed, had won out in the end.

So, after the groundbreaking trial judgment and the hope shattering annulment decision, how should we regard the impact of the Guatemalan genocide trial so far? Is it a step forward in the struggle against impunity or is it rather emblematic of an ever-prevailing impunity? The answer to this question is, in my view, cautiously optimistic.

My optimism in this regard stems mostly from the level of professionalism demonstrated by the Public Ministry in building its case against Ríos Montt, the quality of the evidence presented and the unflappable attitudes of the trial judges in the face of the extreme pressure put on them over the course of the trial. The concrete result of the trial, the genocide conviction, correctly applies relevant international law and has not been subject to any serious challenges on substance. In short, the trial has shown that there are parts of the Guatemalan judicial system that are both willing and able to take on complicated criminal cases.

The professionalism demonstrated during the trial phase stands in sharp contrast, however,  to the actions of the Constitutional Court. I fully agree with those saying that it has acted to uphold impunity. It would be beyond the scope of this post to elaborate in detail on the grounds for annulment (good summaries of the decision can be found here and here), but in short it was based on a minor irregularity in the proceedings surrounding one of the many constitutional complaints that had been brought by the Ríos Montt’s defence team in the course of the trial. The decision has been severely criticised on substance, most importantly in the two strong dissenting opinions (in Spanish). The criticisms can be summarised as follows:

  • The Constitutional Court did not have the competence to render this decision which, in effect, does not concern a constitutional issue, but rather an issue of procedural law.
  • The results of the Constitutional Court’s decision to annul the trial judgment are completely disproportionate to the procedural irregularities found by the Court.
  • The Constitutional Court itself, through its decisions over the course of the trial, contributed further to the confusion surrounding the trial as a result of the obstructionist legal tactics employed by Ríos Montt’s defence team, in the context of which the irregularities found by the Court came about.

The Constitutional Court has thus been able, for now, to uphold impunity for the crimes committed by Ríos Montt. This is a blow to justice on the short term, not to mention an enormous disappointment to his victims. In the long term, however, I believe the events of the past months will weaken impunity in Guatemala. Until very recently, the idea that a Guatemalan court would convict a man like Ríos Montt for any crime, let alone genocide, would have been considered fanciful. That this has become a reality, if only for 10 days, shows that pressure against the project of impunity in Guatemala is rising.

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