On May 10, 2013, a Guatemalan court found former dictator and army general José Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. It was an historic decision: the first time a former head of state had been prosecuted successfully in his native country for genocide, and the first time a high-level leader was convicted in Guatemala for the horrendous crimes that took place during that country's 36-year civil war.
I was in the courtroom the day the verdict was emitted, one of a team of international observers monitoring the process. A court of law weighed the evidence, and found that there had been genocide. The victims, members of the Maya Ixil community, rejoiced at the ruling. It was a vindication of their three-decade struggle to have their pain and suffering acknowledged, and those responsible punished.
However, under pressure by economic elites and sectors of the armed forces, the Constitutional Court undid the ruling just ten days later, arguing a legal technicality. It set the trial back a month and thereby invalidated the verdict.
Domestic and international groups appealed to the Constitutional Court to overturn the ruling, arguing that the proper route to challenge the decision was through a normal appeal process, and that the majority opinion was flawed. Two judges wrote dissenting opinions substantiating these and other points. The Constitutional Court held fast to its decision.
A new tribunal was named to oversee the retrial, but claiming that its docket was full, said it would not be able to hear the genocide case until January 2015. In the meantime, the crusading attorney general who was the architect of the genocide case, Claudia Paz y Paz, was forced out of office early, and the presiding trial judge, Yassmín Barrios, has faced legal sanctions and media opprobrium.
With the new year upon us, the genocide trial is slated to begin on January 5. Several obstacles to restarting the trial have been cleared. Most significantly, on December 18, the Constitutional Court unanimously ruled that the decision of a pretrial judge, which argued that the proceedings should return to November 2011, prior to the date of Ríos Montt's indictment, was illegal and should be nullified. That was the same ruling that, on April 18, 2013, dramatically halted the genocide trial in mid-process for the first time. The ruling vindicates the decision of trial court judge Yassmín Barrios, who at the time refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of that decision, deeming it clearly illegal.