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Articles in English

A Double Negative

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Uncertainty loomed in Guatemala on Friday morning as hundreds of indigenous Ixils, diplomats, and international observers made their way into the country’s Supreme Court where trial has been ongoing since March 19. The three-justice panel, presided by Judge Yasmin Barrios vowed to continue acting according to the rule of law and trail-blaze against justices attempting to halt the genocide trial. In an unprecedented turn of events, a judge recently reinstated to the case of former Guatemalan dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt and Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez ordered the suspension of the trial.
“Prior to February of last year when I had to step down,” Flores began, “I was the judge in charge of all three cases and the motion filed by Gen. Rodríguez Sánchez’ defense was appealed by Center for Legal Action in Human Rights (CALDH).”
The country’s top cop, attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz vowed to file every available legal recourse against Flores, “this resolution is not yet set in stone.” She added, “by the time the court proclaimed itself on this appeal, it was already in a different processing phase and can no longer be valid.”

Adapted by: Romina Ruiz-Goiriena

Judge Barrios made her way into the courtroom Friday with two other adjunct justices. Everyone in the packed gallery stood silently. The microphone light went green and Barrios was at once emphatic, “we do not accept illegal orders. We are subject only to the constitution. Only the Constitutional Court magistrates can order to stop this trial,” she said.

Barrios was sending a message.

She ordered a hiatus and asked the country’s high court to back her.

The previous afternoon pre-trial Judge Carol Patricia Flores attempted to return the landmark genocide case to its evidentiary phase in November 2011. The ruling would send proceedings back to square one, before the generals were charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. Flores said she was following an order from Guatemala’s Constitutional Court and that all actions taken in the case before she was asked to step down in February 2012 were now void.

Flores ruling came as an utter shock. The defense and prosecution were convened for a rudimentary evidence hearing.

According to court documents, the high court ordered to admit evidence previously deemed inadmissible and later return the file to Barrios and resume the trial.  As a precautionary measure, Barrios admitted the four items of evidence on April 5 during the trial when the defense attempted to use this as legal grounds to delay ongoing proceedings.

“We are six defense testimonies away from hearing closing arguments,” she said with a mild crack in her voice.

Hundreds cheered Barrios, and clamored, “We want justice!”

Flores, who isn’t new to the case, hadn’t followed the high court’s order.

Bureaucratic proceedings that lead to no end

There was a question that remained unanswered, why had Flores been charged with carrying out the hearing? Yes, she was the pre-trial judge that charged the generals in January 2012. She was also recused in February 2012 after retired general Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes’ defense team filed a motion to remove Flores claiming she was biased.

Lopez Fuentes, who served as army chief of staff, was later found unfit to stand trial.

The motion stuck until last week when Flores was reinstated, albeit procedurally, to the case.

Over the course of a year, Rios Montt’s and Sanchez’s defense teams lodged over 100 motions and appeals throughout the pre-trail process. The defense strategy attempted to delay opening arguments.  The paperwork was such that some appeals were still in filed and backlogged at the Constitutional Court by the time trial began in March.

Earlier, pre-trial Judge Miguel Angel Galvez who, stepped in to replace Flores dismissed this evidence. Under his criteria, the evidence requested could also incriminate some of the defense witnesses. So, he thought it best to leave them out of the trial proceedings. Francisco Palomo, one of Rios Montt’s attorneys, appealed. “Galvez wants us to go into the ring without gloves,” Palomo said in an interview.

Shortly thereafter, Galvez sent Rios Montt and Sanchez to trial citing there was enough evidence on behalf of the prosecution. The attorney general’s office alleges Rios Montt knew and was aware of the killing of 1,771 Indigenous Ixils in 15 massacres that took place between March 1982 and August 1983, when he was de facto head of state.

Barrios later admitted the evidence under the appeal filed to the Supreme Court.

For three weeks, the court heard a litany of horrors that took place while Rios Montt and Sanchez were at the helm of the government. Dozens of indigenous women, who had been raped, testified with shawls covering their faces. More than 98 victims had spent eight hours a day over the course of ten days just to live and relive how their family members were tortured and killed, and their houses and crops burned to the ground.

The technical defense seemed mute and forwent trying to convince the panel of judges the witnesses were not innocent civilians but belonged to counterinsurgent guerillas.  It was now April 3 and Galvez received an order from the high court.

There was a problem. He couldn’t review the file anymore.

“Prior to February of last year when I had to step down,” Flores began, “I was the judge in charge of all three cases and the motion filed by Gen. Lopez Fuentes’ defense was appealed by Center for Legal Action in Human Rights (CALDH).”

At the time, this legal non-profit that represents indigenous victims in court motioned to keep Flores because it was a strategy by the defense to stall for time.  

Now, the court informed Galvez that Flores could be reassigned. But the trial was already in session.

“Based on this motion, I declare all proceeding invalid before November 23, 2011,” Flores said during the evidence hearing.

Prosecutors and CALDH lawyers attempted to reason with Flores. Both motioned to reposition, and Flores struck both attempts down.

“I want to be clear that I am not ruling at my whim,” she said.

Back in time

Orlando Lopez, chief prosecutor on the genocide case immediately challenged the notion. “She has completely gone outside the rule of law by disobeying the court’s plea to admit evidence.”

The country’s top cop, attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz vowed to file every available legal recourse against Flores, “this resolution is not yet set in stone.”

She added, “by the time the court proclaimed itself on this appeal, it was already in a different processing phase and can no longer be valid.”

Constitutional Court magistrate Mauro Chacon echoed this sentiment on an on-air interview with local radio station Emisoras Unidas. “This is an incorrect interpretation of what the court ordered,” Chacon said.

Overnight dozens of Ixils that had traveled from the Quiche department held a vigil and waited to hear what Judge Barrios would say. Would there be a trial? Would she listen to Flores?

By Friday mid-morning, Barrios had responded she would wait for the Constitutional Court. But dailies and local TV had already given the verdict, “Genocide Trial Suspended.” Different sectors of society battled on radio airwaves and others on social media. Survivors and rights’ advocates took the streets and protested at the foot of the Constitutional Court.

One thing is for certain, the future of the trial rested on the hands of the Central American’s highest. Its magistrates will now decide if justice for its victims will happen this year or move back to November of 2011. Some fear, however, the decision could go as far back as Quiche in 1982.  

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