On 10 May 2013, a Guatemalan trial court rendered a historic judgment, convicting former President José Efraín Ríos Montt to an 80-year prison sentence for genocide and war crimes. On 20 May 2013, in a 3–2 majority decision, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court annulled the trial judgment on procedural grounds. The Constitutional Court’s annulment decision, decried by international observers as a defeat of justice, seems to reaffirm the impossibility of successful domestic prosecution of powerful leaders for international crimes and reinforce the need for international prosecutions. However, such a conclusion does not do justice to the profound meaning the genocide trial against Ríos Montt has had for Guatemalan society. This article aims to give a more complete picture. It discusses how the trial could come about, in spite of the apparent inability and unwillingness of the Guatemalan state to prosecute the serious crimes of the civil war era. It looks at the role that the international community and international law played in the trial. Finally, it assesses the trial’s significance, in the face of the Constitutional Court’s annulment decision, for both Guatemalan society and the international community.
UN News Center‘UN human rights office urges trial to be decided on merits after Guatemalan court overturns Ríos Montt conviction’, 24 May 2013; J-M. Burt and G. Thale, ‘The Guatemala Genocide Case: Using the Legal System to Defeat Justice’Washington Office on Latin America5 June 2013.
Trial judgmentsupra note 1 p. 689–690 translation by the authors. Spanish original: “… que se haya decidido violar a las mujeres no sólo como botín de guerra sino también para lograr la ruptura del tejido social y lograr la eliminación de la semilla Ixil siendo por lo tanto los actos de violencia sexual y métodos usados formas de destruir al grupo comprobándose así la intención de destruir al grupo completo.”
Accusation Ríos Monttsupra note 28 para. IV.B. For a general description of this theory of criminal responsibility see F. Jessberger and J. Geneuss ‘On the application of a theory of indirect perpetration in Al Bashir – German doctrine at The Hague?’ 6 Journal of International Criminal Justice (2008) 853–869.