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Guatemala: Judicial system in desperate need of reform

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Suspension of Rios Montt Retrial Highlights Need for Reform of Guatemala’s Judicial System

Hopes for justice in Guatemala and an end to impunity were dashed again on 5 January when the retrial of former head of State Efraín Rios Montt and his head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez,  was suspended shortly after opening. The stalling of the retrial for genocide and other human rights violations highlights longstanding problems within Guatemala’s judicial system and calls into question the independence of the country’s legal institutions at a time when itshould be tackling longstanding structural impunity and prosecuting powerful leaders for past human rights abuses.

Indigenous Maya wait patiently at the genocide trial. Photo: Media-coop

As soon as the retrial opened, defence attorneys sought the removal of Judge Irma Valdéz, one of the three judges presiding over the case, on the grounds that her 2004 academic thesis on genocide constituted a pre-formed opinion. The other judges agreed, and the trial has been postponed until a replacement can be selected . This process will likely prove lengthy, given that there is a limited number of judges competent to preside over this kind of high-risk case in Guatemala, and Rios Montt has challenged several of them already. Delay may mean that the 88-year-old Rios Montt,  reported to be in ill health, may not live long enough to face another trail.
The removal of Judge Valdéz forms part of a wider strategy by Rios Montt’s defence team— the filing of multiple petitions in an effort to delay sentencing,  a tactic common in Guatemala’s courts. The fines for such filing frivolous time-wasting petitions are negligible, ensuring that there is little to discourage lawyers from the practice, and Rios Montt’s team filed more than a dozen petitions during his first trial in the hopes of derailing proceedings and hampering attempts to reach a verdict.

This is not the first time that the defence team’s legal manoeuvres have defeated efforts to successfully prosecute Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez. The first attempt at convicting the two men came in 2013 when they were charged with ordering the army to carry out a series of massacres during Rios Montt’s presidency in which 1,771 people of the Ixil Maya ethnic group were killed. Over three days, soldiers systematically killed hundreds of men, women and children, shooting or beating them to death and throwing bodies down a well. Rodriguez was acquitted while Rios Montt was found guilty and sentenced to 80 years in prison.

The result was an extraordinary one for a legal system still struggling with the legacy of a violent civil war. Guatemala’s judiciary garnered international praise for the prosecution. It represented a significant landmark for victims of the conflict’s most violent period, who had waited 30 years to be heard. However, the victory was short lived. Less than two weeks later Guatemala’s Constitutional Court threw out the verdicts on a legal technicality and ordered a retrial. There were widespread accusations that powerful political interests, who were concerned the conviction would pave the way for further prosecutions for human rights violations, had influenced the court’s decision.

Guatemala’s justice system has demonstrated a willingness to convict former leaders in other cases, most recently with the January 2015 conviction of Pedro García Arredondo, former chief detective of the now-defunct National Police, who was found guilty of orchestrating a fire in the city’s Spanish embassy that killed 37 people.

Rios Montt testifying. Photo: WikimediaHowever, the collapse of Rios Montt’s conviction and the delay in the retrial reflect the fact that Guatemala’s judiciary is still heavily influenced by political pressure. Political interference begins with the process of selecting the country’s appellate and Supreme Court justices, which takes place every five years and is often marred by a lack of transparency and accusations of corruption.

Forcing judges to face reappointment every five years places them in a weak position, and ensures they are susceptible to outside interests, making it more likely they will reinforce the impunity endemic in the country’s legal system . Extensive reform of the judicial system is needed to ensure that Guatemala’s judges have the independence and competence to reduce impunity and to prosecute high profile criminals. These reforms could begin with the creation of an open and transparent process for selecting judges.

Guatemala earned widespread praise when it became the first country to convict a former head of state of genocide in its own court system. The retrial of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez now poses a strong test. It remains to be seen whether a judiciary accustomed to tolerating corruption and impunity can reaffirm of its independence or will buckle under the pressure. If it stands firm, it will take a major step away from impunity and the protection of privilege, and towards the construction of an independent, trustworthy judiciary.

Emma O’Leary has a BA in History and Politics from University College Cork, and an MA in Latin American Studies from the Institute for the Study of the Americas in London. She works as a Latin America analyst for an international political and security risk consultancy headquartered in London. The views expressed here are the authors own.

Main image: from a photo by Natasha Pizzey Siegert