When a court in Guatemala convicted former U.S.-backed dictator Rios Montt of genocide a couple weeks ago, I was skeptical. I wrote then, “But don’t be surprised if this does not last and the current president, who served in the military under Montt, finds some way to void the result.” And here’s the least surprising news of the week:
Guatemala’s top court overturned Rios Montt’s conviction late Monday and ordered that the trial be taken back to where it stood on April 19, when a dispute among judges arose over who should hear the case. Rios Montt’s defense team said that it was filing a request for his immediate release.
Many victims’ advocates saw only a slim possibility of convicting Rios Montt again because of the uncertainty produced by the Constitutional Court’s decision. Defense lawyers could, for example, ask for the trial judges to be removed because they already issued a conviction in the case. That could force the trial to start again from scratch, bringing virtually endless possibilities for delay because new judges would not be familiar with much of the evidence.
The Constitutional Court’s decision “appears to give us a way forward, but it’s a rocky way forward,” said Hector Reyes, a lawyer representing victims in the case. “Instead of giving us a way out it creates more judicial complications.”
Many in Guatemala said they believe influential business and agricultural leaders pressured the high court to aid the former right-wing dictator for fear his conviction would set a precedent that could lead to further prosecutions for violations of human rights during the civil war. A coalition of business groups has criticized Rios Montt’s conviction.
This was almost inevitable. It’s also tragic and unjust.