Guatemala’s highest court has overturned the watershed conviction of a former military leader of genocide and crimes against humanity. Retired General Efraín Ríos Montt had been convicted May 10 of ordering the deaths of more than 1,700 Ixil-speaking ethnic Mayans. But Monday, a constitutional court voided the combined 80-year sentence against the 86-year-old on the grounds that Ríos Montt had briefly been left without a defense attorney during the trial.
“The court’s decision reveals the reach of the Guatemala’s impunity for all the world to see,” said Kate Doyle, Senior Analyst at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, which obtained some of the U.S. and Guatemala intelligence documents used as evidence in the case. “The victims and their advocates,” she added, “will fight the ruling and the genocide verdict will ultimately be confirmed.”
The decision by the constitutional court does not annul all the evidence or trial proceedings, only those that were heard after April 19 when Ríos Montt’s attorney, Francisco Garcia, was expelled from the courtroom after a number his legal challenges had been rebuffed by the judges hearing the case, whom he also said should be dismissed “ for bias.”
The court then ordered that a public defender represent Ríos Montt, but he rejected the judge’s order. In its decision Monday, the constitutional court ruled that the lower court should have heard Garcia’s legal challenges before going on with the trial.
Ríos Montt was given a 50-year sentence for genocide, and a 30-year sentence for various crimes against humanity. Over the 17 months that Ríos Montt led the military and nation in the early 1980s, 5.5% of the Ixil-speaking people were killed in their native region. Advocates are already preparing to return to the original court to retry the final stages of the trial.