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Montt’s genocide conviction overturned

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Former Guatemalan dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt
Former Guatemalan dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt

Guatemala’s top court has thrown another curve into the genocide case of former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt, overturning his conviction and ordering that the trial be taken back to the middle of the proceedings.

The ruling late Monday threw into disarray a process that had been hailed as historic for delivering the first guilty verdict for genocide against a former Latin American leader.

Constitutional Court secretary Martin Guzman said the trial needs to go back to where it stood on April 19 to solve several appeal issues.

The ruling came 10 days after a three-judge panel convicted Rios Montt (86) of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in massacres of Mayans during Guatemala’s bloody, 36-year civil war. The panel found after two months of testimony that Rios Montt knew about the slaughter of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayans in the western highlands and didn’t stop it.

The tribunal sentenced the him to 80 years in prison, drawing cheers from many Guatemalans. It was the first time a former Latin American leader was convicted of such crimes in his home country and the first official acknowledgment that genocide occurred during the war — something the current President, retired General Otto Perez Molina, has denied.

Rios Montt’s lawyers immediately filed an appeal, and he spent three days in prison before he was moved to a military hospital, where he remains.

The top court on Monday said it threw out his conviction because the trial should have been stopped while appeals filed by the defence were resolved.

Defence lawyer Francisco Garcia Gudiel told The Associated Press by telephone that he would seek the former dictator’s freedom on Tuesday.

Representatives of the victims who testified against Rios Montt couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

The proceedings, which started in March, had been whipped back and forth ever since April 18, when a Guatemalan judge ordered that the trial should be restarted just as it was nearing closing arguments.

Judge Carol Patricia Flores had been recently reinstated by the Constitutional Court after being recused in February 2012. She ruled that all actions taken in the case since she was first asked to step down were null, sending the trial back to square one.

The next day, April 19, the tribunal hearing the oral part of the trial asked the Constitutional Court to decide if the proceedings should continue.

The trial was suspended for 12 days amid appeals and at times appeared headed for annulment. But it resumed April 30, and on May 10 the three-judge tribunal found Rios Montt guilty after more than 100 witnesses and experts testified about mass rapes and the killings of women and children and other atrocities committed by government troops. Rios Montt ruled Guatemala in 1982-83 following a military coup.

— AP


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