Landmark Ríos Montt Verdict Overturned

Source: AP Photo/Moises Castillo

Justice has suffered a heavy blow in the hemisphere as Guatemala restores its mantle as the home of some of the hemisphere’s worst human rights violators. The international human rights community stands in awe and deep disappointment at this setback. On May 20, 2013 Guatemala’s five-member Constitutional Court voted three to two to overturn the guilty verdict issued just 10 days earlier by the First High Risk Court against former dictator General José Efraín Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison for acts of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the indigenous Ixil people during his relatively brief period as head of state (1982-1983). This trial is extremely significant in that it marks the first time in history that a former head of state has been tried for human rights violations in a national court rather than before an international court and the first time that Guatemala has officially acknowledged that acts of genocide were committed during its 36 year civil war. No doubt the legal struggle to bring Ríos Montt to justice will continue as the prosecution regroups and adjusts its strategy to the new ruling.

Due to still pending legal challenges presented by the defense, the Constitutional Court overturned the earlier guilty verdict and ordered the trial to restart from its position as of April 19. The trial had been suspended from April 19 to April 30 after an earlier judge, Carol Patricia Flores, attempted to annul the trial’s entire proceedings. The Constitutional Court decided that Judge Flores had overstepped her authority and subsequently ordered the trial to continue, reportedly without addressing the appeals that had been submitted by Rios Montt’s defense. Additionally, the court also replaced Ríos Montt’s defense attorney, Francisco Garcia, after he stormed out of court on April 18. The defense argues that, on the one hand, court proceedings should never have resumed without addressing pending legal challenges and, on the other, its client’s legal rights were violated when a new legal team was appointed without his approval. Despite the resumption of the trial and the issuance of a guilty verdict on May 10, the Constitutional Court has now ruled that proceedings should have in fact been suspended in order to hear each appeal before the High Risk Court and that, consequently, the guilty verdict is now void with the entire process potentially having to begin again.

According to Grahame Russell, Co-Director of Rights Action (, who is deeply involved with human rights work in Guatemala and who has been closely following the developments in the Ríos Montt trial, “the guilty decision is correct. [The decision and] the whole genocide trial, which goes back years, was the exception to impunity in Guatemala. The legal system as a whole is totally corrupted and keeps in place the system of impunity. It is not at all surprising that [the guilty verdict] has been partially turned back.” While this development is hardly surprising, it is extremely disheartening. Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs observed, “this annulment tragically sends the wrong signal regarding the violation of human rights in Guatemala. If this action on Ríos Montt turns out to be a precedent, Guatemala is likely to again assume its traditional sash of being Latin America’s most violent human rights malefactor.”

Laura Powell, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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8 thoughts on “Landmark Ríos Montt Verdict Overturned

  • May 22, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    America needs to learn a lot form GUATEMALA:
    They must first settle their problems of abuse of power and killings both inside and outside its territory. They need to stop in the politics of other countries. we are not your puppets!
    On the other hand some general culture can really help people there in the USA.
    What happened here was not a genocide there was killing, a BIG one, but these words are NOT synonyms. And the deaths were caused by the military as guerrillas and even the PAC.

  • May 22, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Only two types of persons claim a genocide existed in Guatemala: a) Foreigners who fall for the propaganda and have absolutely NO idea what really happened in Guatemala (and what to choose a "heroic" cause without actually taking the time to learn about what happened here (and you will not find it in Wikipedia); and b) Left wing former guerillas who are upset that they could not turn Guatemala into another Cuba and now claim to be victims (clearly ignoring the fact that it was the guerrillas who bombed, executed, kidnapped, and tortured Guatemalans for 35 years).

  • May 23, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Im here in Guatemala, I claim for justice. Rios Montt is a genocide!! Wikipedia as source of information only show you how educated are the people that wrote for ríos Montt. why ríos Montt don´t go outside Guatemala? because he knows that around civilizated world he must be in jail.

  • May 23, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    This has to be written by a democrat….
    Rios Montt was not a genocide nor committed genocide….All the indians that died in the war, were guerillas or helping them…We already had the guerillas in Guatemala City, when Rios Montt got in to power, so Im thankful he erradicated it, a war its a war, those were the consequences. Guerillas killed the yourUS embassador, how can you write an article in favor of a sentence?? Human rights shouldnt exist…

  • May 23, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    No Genocide was committed in Guatemala. The military did its best to protect the country and its citizens from the eminent threat of Communist rule. The guerrillas were a destabilizing and murderous force that had to be dealt with. It was a terrible war and only those of us who lived thru it can understand it. Who are you people? Most Guatemalans will tell you they do not understand why HUMAN RIGHTS PEOPLE in our country seem to protect mostly criminals. Mr. Russell, if you have truly watched the circus lead by judge Barrios, you would be happy to see what has happened. You would delight in watching our judicial system (albeit with all its flaws), at work and you would welcome the opportunity for a proper trial to proceed. You are a disgrace and presiceley the type of person who gives Human Rights Activists in our country such a bad name. How dare you decide the GUILTY VERDICT IS CORRECT. Thank God this is not up to you. And thank God our CORRUPTED SYSTEM is not working for you today. And to you Miss Powell, get your facts straight. They have yet to be convicted as " some of the hemisphere’s worst human rights violators." You should be sued for libel.

  • May 23, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    To my fellow latino brothers: AMERICA is the continent's name.
    We are also Americans who live in the center part of the continent.
    We should call them north Americans, it's more appropriate.

    Regarding Rios Montt: We owe him that our Guatemala it's not like CUBA now!

  • May 23, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    A total Yes!!!!! To my friends who wrote and explained in detail what is really happenning in our Country… is very simple…..there was not genocide. Efrain Rios Montt is being falsy accussed!!!!! It is all a lie…..unbelievable but true…..incriminating
    an innocent, To obtain their current interests……so sad and so bad……we do not want the frustrated guerrila to be able to even think that they can try to take ur Country again….not again…..this is over……Guatemala needs to happily work and invest in its country with integrity…..and produce highly in order to become a great Nation……we can do it……Guatemalans are fighters, God believers and enduring people……we should not accept any help from overseas in order to be free with not international intervention, for this last intervention is fighting within our country using a false argument, that is convenient to a specific group of persons. And it is an aberration, unbelievable fact occuring accussing a great, honorable person based in an intern war that he did not impulse…..Guatemala is indignated….this is a total lie……


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