Skip to main content

Guatemala genocide conviction overturned

By Mariano Castillo and Miguel Salay, CNN
May 21, 2013 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned the conviction of Efrain Rios Montt
  • Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 80 years
  • The court said the proceedings must return to the trial phase
  • Human rights groups say they will appeal

Guatemala City (CNN) -- When former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison this month, it was not expected to be the end of story.

READ MORE: Guatemala's Rios Montt guilty of genocide

Observers knew that an appeal was coming, but it was a separate action -- a ruling by Guatemala's Constitutional Court -- that provided the latest twist in the case.

The Constitutional Court on Monday overturned Rios Montt's conviction and sentence, and ordered the proceedings to return to the trial phase.

The ruling does not annul the entire trial, but everything that happened after April 19, notably the closing arguments and conviction.

Filmmaker helps bring dictator to trial

The overturning of the conviction is related to a number of procedural complaints filed by the defense. The defense had argued that Rios Montt's rights had been violated when his attorney was expelled early in the trial, and that the head judge should have recused herself. The Constitutional Court decided that the trial should have been suspended while these appeals were in place, instead of pushing forward a conclusion.

Rios Montt, 86, had been found guilty of the genocide of more than 1,700 indigenous Ixil Mayans during his 1982-83 rule.

The trial marked the first time a head of state was tried for genocide by his country's own judicial system.

Dozens of Ixil Mayans took the stand during the trial to recount atrocities committed by the army. The witnesses told the judges about brutal killings, rapes and the razing of villages. The Constitutional Court's ruling allows their testimony to stand.

The trial's original outcome was seen as a precedent for future charges against military officials accused of atrocities during Guatemala's 36-year civil war. The war did not end until 1996, leaving more than 200,000 people dead and 1 million as refugees.

Rios Montt said during the trial that he never ordered the killings of the Ixil.

"We have reached the conclusion that there is still hope for justice, which is the Constitutional Court," Rios Montt attorney Mario Antonio Rossell said. "This is a historic resolution."

Human rights groups say they will appeal the decision.

"What has happened is that in this country, the laws have been applied arbitrarily," said Mario Polanco, director of a Guatemalan human rights group. "They have served the interests of those in power, and when it is one of the representatives of those in power who is on trial, they will resort to any means, and that is what we are seeing. I think there has been an abuse in the interpretation of the law."

READ MORE: Rios Montt rejects genocide charges as history-making trial nears end

READ MORE: Guatemala confronts a dark chapter

CNN's Mariano Castillo reported and wrote the story in Atlanta. Journalist Miguel Salay reported from Guatemala City.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 2232 GMT (0632 HKT)
ISIS has slaughtered hundreds. Now nearly 40 nations have agreed to take the fight to the militants. But what can they do?
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1253 GMT (2053 HKT)
ISIS has captured the minds of a new generation of global jihadists. What does it mean for al Qaeda?
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 0338 GMT (1138 HKT)
Treated with all due respect, volcanoes can offer some stunning vistas. Just don't fall in.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 0522 GMT (1322 HKT)
The blogger, the hacker, the PM... and Kim Dotcom? New Zealand's election campaign erupts in scandal.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0236 GMT (1036 HKT)
In the aftermath of that deadly day, the enemy quickly became clear. But now a plurality of extremist threats tests global resolve.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Soviets put stray dogs into orbit. Then, next thing you know...
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 0928 GMT (1728 HKT)
Her name is Thokozile Matilda Masipa, and she is the woman who will rule whether Oscar Pistorius is a murderer.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
As a 10-year-old, this boy first hit the headlines in 1982 when he saved his cat from a fire. This year, he was reported to be a suicide bomber.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1517 GMT (2317 HKT)
After months -- if not years -- of speculation, the tech giant's first foray into wearables has arrived. Here are our first impressions.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0805 GMT (1605 HKT)
Bali might be a popular tourist destination but there are crowd-free corners worth exploring.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1120 GMT (1920 HKT)
Scots are preparing to vote on the future of their country. Will they decide to leave the UK?
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT