GUATEMALA CITY — The human rights prosecution of former Guatemalan dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt, whose brutal rule in the early 1980s saw the deaths of tens of thousands of the country’s indigenous people, has hit another obstacle, with one of the country’s two high courts saying the retired general may be entitled to amnesty.
The court’s declaration, which was leaked this week to a Guatemalan news outlet, orders the lower court that is trying Rios Montt to reconsider whether a 1986 amnesty law applies in his case. The court previously had ruled that it did not.
The court’s declaration and supporting documents have not been provided to either the defense or the prosecution in the case, and the court’s precise arguments are yet to be reviewed by the lower court. But should the lower court accept them, it would be a major setback for human rights advocates, who’ve long viewed Rios Montt’s prosecution as a milestone in Guatemala’s assigning responsibility for one of the bloodiest period’s in Latin American history.
Rios Montt, who enjoyed the support of the Reagan administration at the time, is accused of genocide for a bloody three-year campaign of rural pacification that drove nearly 1 million people from their homes and killed countless others. Massacres, disappearances and torture were common during his rule, which his government justified as being necessary to crush a communist-inspired rebellion among Guatemala’s indigenous people.
On May 10, Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and war crimes, the first time that a former head of state was convicted of crimes against humanity in his own country. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison. However, the Constitutional Court overturned Rios Montt’s conviction just 10 days later, citing disputes over jurisdiction.
The Constitutional Court’s order, first disclosed by the Prensa Libre newspaper, puzzled many analysts here, who worried it was intended to circumvent the judicial process. The Constitutional Court cited a 1986 decree that granted amnesty to combatants on both sides of the war. That decree, however, had been superseded by the 1996 National Reconciliation Law that prohibits amnesty for those convicted of genocide, torture, disappearances or other crimes against humanity.
“I found the Rios Montt trials and legal proceedings to be Kafkaesque almost,” said Roxanna Altholz, the associate director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, law school. “There are all kinds of factors that are confusing. . . . It’s not just that the system is arcane, it’s that it’s configured to support impunity.”
It was not clear if the lower court could ignore the higher court’s order. The Center for Human Rights Legal Action, which has taken the lead in prosecuting Rios Montt, said that the Constitutional Court’s declaration “does not grant amnesty for Rios Montt but directs lower courts to clarify previous rulings that denied him amnesty.”
Advocates of prosecuting Rios Montt say that not only does Guatemalan law say amnesty is not applicable, but international law also undermines amnesty claims. Guatemala’s justice system is subject to rulings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has previously abrogated similar amnesty decrees in Peru and Argentina.
There is “no amnesty for crimes like genocide,” Altholz said. A grant of amnesty by the lower court almost certainly would be appealed, eventually reaching the Inter-American court.
The Inter-American court’s powers are limited, however. “The court, like all international courts, does not have an army, so there’s no coercive method,” Altholz said. The consequences for the Guatemalan justice system would be limited to “condemnation from the court and the international community,” she said.
Neither the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala nor the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala has commented on the reported Constitutional Court ruling.
Francisco Palomo, Rios Montt’s defense attorney, told Prensa Libre Thursday that the judges in the initial trial had “acted ideologically” and that “they knew perfectly what they wanted to apply and what not to apply.” He applauded the decision by the Constitutional Court, saying that the judges during the trial “insisted that we invoke the National Reconciliation Law, when in reality from the outset we wanted to invoke” the 1986 decree.
Amilcar Pop, a congressional deputy from the Winaq party of Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, which champions indigenous rights in Guatemala, called the Constitutional Court’s ruling “one of the steps on the rout to impunity,” according to Prensa Libre. “With this Guatemala is returned 60 years in the fight for human rights.”
Rios Montt is still a contentious figure in Guatemala. Many continue to think of him as a leader who created necessary order, albeit with means that have been condemned.
Valentine Gramajo, a deputy in Guatemala’s right-wing Patriot Party, which has been accused of pressuring the courts to quash the Rios Montt trial, told Prensa Libre that he favored granting the former president amnesty.
The fear among those who oppose the court’s declaration is that if Rios Montt does receive amnesty it would pave the way for others who committed crimes during the civil war to receive amnesty, even if they have previously been convicted.
“Amnesty shows that justice is not working after 15 years’ time,” said Alehandra Castillo, the deputy director of Guatemala’s Center for Human Rights Legal Action.
Reeves is a McClatchy special correspondent.