The prosecution of a former dictator convicted of genocide and war crimes against indigenous Guatemalans could be set aside due to a recent court ruling.
On October 22, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala ordered a lower court to reconsider whether a 1986 amnesty law applies to the case of former President Jose Efrain Rios Montt, who had been convicted of genocide and war crimes in May of this year. Rios Montt was sentenced to a total of 80 years for the crimes. In a prior ruling the court had said that amnesty did not apply.
The rationale and supporting documents on the court’s decision have not been released yet but human rights activists and indigenous leaders are warning that if the lower court applies amnesty to Rios Montt, it would be a serious blow to justice.
“Survivors in the Ixil have been seeking justice for over a decade. This ruling opens the door to a possible amnesty and represents yet another attempt to ensure impunity for high-level military officials who committed egregious violations during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict,” said Kelsey Alford-Jones, Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC). “The Court’s decision could represent a huge set-back to other emblematic human rights convictions.”
“This ruling is one step on the road to impunity,” said Mayan legislator Amilcar Pop of the Winaq Party, “with this step Guatemala is going backwards by 60 years in the fight for human rights. They had taken an important step with the sentences relating to the crimes committed during the war but now they are setting a nefarious precedent.”
The case against Rios Montt has taken various turns. Ten days after the May 10 ruling, the Constitutional Court overturned the convictions against Rios Montt on Monday, May 20, returning the proceedings to its status on April 19 of this year due to an unresolved motion involving jurisdiction.
In this recent decision, the Court cited a 1986 decree that granted amnesty to combatants on both sides of the war. That decree, however, was replaced by the 1996 National Reconciliation Law that prohibits amnesty for those convicted of genocide, torture, disappearances or other crimes against humanity. In 1997 the Guatemalan Congress repealed all amnesty laws passed prior to 1996 to remove “impunity and social polarization.”
The new trial for Rios Montt has been scheduled for April of 2014.