The new trial against former Guatemala strongman General Jose Efrain Rios Montt has been scheduled to restart on January 5, 2015. (That is not a typo; the trial will not restart in a couple of months, but rather over a year from now). The thousands of Guatemalans that suffered under his rule as well as the international media have cried foul over this decision, as General Rios Montt had originally been found guilty this past May.
Nevertheless, the original ruling was overturned and it may very well be that the former head of state will die a free man.
This past May, General Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years in jail for human rights abuses committed while he was President and Commander-in-Chief of Guatemala’s army (1981-1982). Specifically, charges against him were brought by the country’s Mayan-Ixil indigenous people, who suffered throughout that country’s bloody civil war (1960-1996).
Nevertheless, the case against Ríos Montt quickly became a judicial mess, as a five-judge panel then argued that General Rios Montt had been left without legal defense on April 19, when his layer was briefly expelled from the court room.
A BBC articleexplains that the decision by the court is that, “statements delivered in court before 19 April would stand, but that closing arguments would have to be given again, and ordered the trial to restart from that point.”
As controversial as the aforementioned court’s decision was, it has become even more baffling that the court will wait over a year to handle the case of a former dictator charged with human rights abuses. After the decision was made known, a press release by Amnesty International declared, “This decision to further delay is a letdown for genocide victims and their families.” On their part,the Guatemalan judiciaryargues that it does not have an earlier opening in its schedule of upcoming cases.
Parallel to the decision by the Guatemalan judiciary to postpone the trial until 2015, a Guatemalan indigenous group filed a complaint with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in Washington, arguing that the annulment of a genocide conviction against Riots Montt represents a denial of the right to justice. It is unclear how much pressure the IAHRC could place on the Guatemalan legal system to reschedule the new trial to an earlier date.
Will Rios Montt be alive in 2015?
On March 21, before the first verdict on Rios Montt was passed, I wrote acommentary for VOXXIwhere I discussed presidential immunity among former Latin American heads of state. In the piece, I was optimistic about how the Guatemalan’s trial, as well as a trial concerning former Argentine President Carlos Menem, were examples of how “judicial immunity for presidents [were] slowly coming to an end.”
It would seem that I, along with numerous other human rights organizations that published optimistic press memoranda after Rios Montt was originally convicted, were too quick to be proud of the Guatemalan judiciary. Now the question is whether Rios Montt will make it to his next court appointment in the (distant) January 2015.
A major concern is that the general will pass away before his trial commences, and even if he is convicted again, he could use his frail health as an excuse to avoid jail time. These are legitimate concerns, as they have occurred in other trials of former heads of state. For example, theChilean dictator General Augusto Pinochetdied in December 2006 from a heart attack while he was in the military hospital in Santiago. He died a free man, seeing that a trial to convict him of human rights abuses while he was in power (1973-1990) had not reached a verdict yet.
A similar case is that of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in March 2006 from a heart attack while in his jail cell. At the time, the former ruler was on trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. While Milosevic did die behind bars, he did so without ever having been convicted for his crimes, as his trial had yet to reach a verdict.
Finally, it is worth mentioningthe case of Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s dictator from 1990 until 2000. Currently imprisoned, the family and supporters of the disgraced former head of state have been seeking to have Fujimori either pardoned or allowed to serve the remaining of his prison sentence under house arrest on account of his deteriorating health.
These aforementioned examples demonstrate that the advanced age of disgraced rulers has helped them escape from being tried, and can be used as a tool to attempt to get more advantageous living conditions in prison. Pinochet died at the age of 91, Milosevic was 64 when he passed away in his Dutch cell, while the sick Fujimori is currently 75.
At the advanced age of 87, General Rios Montt realistically may not have much time left. At this point, the most that his victims and human rights organizations can hope for is that he will be alive in 2015 to be trialed, providing some closure for those who suffered unspeakable atrocities and those who support them. Whether he will be alive to be convicted (again) and actually serve any time behind bars may just be wishful thinking.