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Overturned: Former Guatemalan Dictator's Genocide Conviction

Guatemala's former dictator Efrain Rios Montt arrives in court Jan. 31 in Guatemala City to stand trial on genocide charges. On Monday, his conviction was overturned.
Moises Castillo
Guatemala's former dictator Efrain Rios Montt arrives in court Jan. 31 in Guatemala City to stand trial on genocide charges. On Monday, his conviction was overturned.

A federal court in Guatemala has thrown out the genocide conviction of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, which had been called a breakthrough in the region's human rights.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports that "all trial evidence and testimony as of April 19th, the date a trial judge was removed from the case, must be re-entered."

The ruling late Monday came 10 days after a three judge tribunal sentenced 86-year-old Rios Montt to 80 years in prison: 50 years for genocide against the Ixil Mayan people, who were considered enemies of the Guatemalan state, and an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity.

As Mark wrote, Rios Montt's conviction marked the first time any country convicted a current or former head of state on genocide charges. Other genocide convictions have been handed down by international courts.

The BBC reports that the annulment is based on Rios Montt's legal representation. On April 19, he was briefly without a defense attorney because his lawyers walked out of court, protesting "illegal proceedings." The tribunal hearing the case appointed a public defender, who Rios Montt rejected. He wanted a personal attorney who had already been expelled in the case. When the personal attorney appeared, he attempted to have the tribunal judges dismissed and was expelled again. That's when the Constitutional Court says the case should have stopped.

After his conviction, Rios Montt appealed and the Constitutional Court wound back the clock to April 19. By that point, The New York Times reports, "the tribunal had heard all of the prosecution's case and most of the defense's. That testimony still stands. But the court's ruling after that date." That includes the conviction and sentence.

What's unclear is whether this creates a matter of double-jeopardy for Rios Montt. It's also not known which judge or panel of judges will now take up the case.

Amnesty International expressed outrage, saying the legal basis for the ruling isn't clear:

"With the sentence on 10 May, the trial court had sent a strong signal that crimes against thousands of Mayan victims would not be tolerated. The Constitutional Court has now questioned that message, putting the right to truth, justice and reparation at risk in Guatemala."

As Agence France-Press puts it,

"Rios Montt's conviction made him the first Latin American ex-dictator to be convicted of trying to exterminate an entire people, during a brief but particularly gruesome stretch of a war that started in 1960, dragged on for 36 years and left around 200,000 people dead or missing. Under his rule, the army carried out a scorched earth policy against indigenous peoples, accusing them of backing rebel forces."

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Korva Coleman is a newscaster for NPR.
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