Court Throws Out Genocide Ruling Against Former Guatemala Dictator

Former dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt (Credit: AP/Moises Castillo)

What was hailed as a landmark ruling in Guatemala has been thrown out, as the country’s high court ordered a former dictator’s case on charges of genocide return to a lower court.

Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt was just less than two weeks ago convicted of committing genocide against his own people during his time in power. According to the charges against him, Rios Montt was aware of the slaughter of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayans during the country’s lengthy civil war, and did nothing to stop it. As punishment, the 86-year old former dictator was sentenced to eighty years in prison, the first time a national court had convicted a former head of state for committing genocide.

Instead of sitting in a cell for the rest of his life, however, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court has overturned the conviction and ordered that the trial jump back down to the tribunal that originally tried the case. Additionally, the trial has to rewind to where it stood back on April 19, to cover what Rios Montt claimed were violations of due process. As a result, it seems that Rios Montt will likely be released from custody in the near future, while many involved with the prosecution have already fled the country for fear of reprisals from those who sought to have the conviction reversed.

When it was first announced, Human Rights Watch called Rios Montt’s guilty verdict an “unprecedented step toward establishing accountability for atrocities.”

“The conviction of Rios Montt sends a powerful message to Guatemala and the world that nobody, not even a former head of state, is above the law when it comes to committing genocide,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, at the time.

The overturning of the ruling should be particularly disappointing for Americans, given the role that the United States played in enabling Rios Montt’s rule and subsequent abuse of power at the height of the Cold War:

When General Ríos Montt was installed in a coup in March 1982, Reagan administration officials were eager to embrace him as an ally. Embassy officials trekked up to the scene of massacres and reported back the army’s line that the guerrillas were doing the killing, according to documents uncovered by [Kate Doyle, a Guatemala expert at the National Security Archive].

Over the next two years, about $15 million in spare parts and vehicles from the United States reached the Guatemalan military, said Prof. Michael E. Allison, a political scientist at the University of Scranton who studies Central America. More aid came from American allies like Israel, Taiwan, Argentina and Chile. In the 1990s, the American government revealed that the C.I.A. had been paying top military officers throughout the period.

President Bill Clinton in 1999 traveled to Guatemala to apologize for the U.S.’ support for the dictator, saying that “support for military forces or intelligence units which engage in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the [Commission for Historical Clarification] report was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.”