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Rigoberta Menchu et al. v Ríos Montt et al.

Court Constitutional Court of Guatemala, Tribunal Primero A, Guatemala
Case number Exp 1904-2013
Decision title Summary of Situation and Cases
Decision date 20 May 2013
  • Rigoberta Menchu
  • Efraín Ríos Montt
Other names
  • 'Guatemala Genocide case'
Categories Crimes against humanity, Genocide
Keywords due process violations, genocide, Head of State, Murder, universal jurisdiction
Other countries involved
  • Spain
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General Efraín Ríos Montt was a former head of state of Guatemala.

In 2007, Montt was elected for a seat in the Congress. In 2012, his term of office as a member of the Congress came to an end. As a result, his immunity (heads of states are given protection from being suit without their consent) was lifted. Complaints were brought against Ríos Montt for crimes that resulted in the deaths of 1,771 indigenous Ixil people during his 17-month rule.

On 10 May 2013, Ríos Montt was found guilty of crimes committed against the indigenous Mayan population between 1960 and 1996 and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. On 20 May 2013, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court annulled the decision and set back the trial to the proceedings of 19 April 2013.

Ríos Montt is the first former head of state to be convicted of genocide by a court in his own country.

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Procedural history

On 2 December 1999, a complaint was filed against former head of state of Guatemala, General Efraín Ríos Montt, and other senior officials. The complaint alleges that the accused are guilty of terrorism, systematic torture, as well as genocide against the indigenous Mayan population between 1960 and 1996.

On 13 December 2000, the Spanish National Court accepted a motion to dismiss by the Public Prosecutor and ruled that the plaintiffs had not adequately exhausted their legal remedies in Guatemala. 

On 25 February 2003, after an appeal was brought against the decision, the Spanish Supreme Court partly overturned the National Court’s decision. The Supreme Court allowed only those claims with a connection to Spain to proceed, thus excluding the claims by the Mayan plaintiffs. 

On 26 September 2005, the Spanish Constitutional Court reversed the Supreme Court’s decision, citing the intention of legislators to allow for universal jurisdiction in Spain over certain international crimes. The Court stated that Spanish courts have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes including genocide, crimes against humanity and torture, regardless of the nationality of the victims or accused.

On 18 October 2006, a writ of indictment for eight accused were issued and followed by request for extradition issued on 22 November 2006. Both were accepted by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala. On 10 December 2007, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala reversed its decision (Part 1, Part 2) , holding that the warrants and extradition requests were invalid.

On 14 March 2008, an order for the arrest of Ríos Montt was issued.

On 26 January 2012, Ríos Montt had to appear before a court in Guatemala. On 1 March 2012, Judge Miguel Angel Galvez, a pre-trial judge, declined to grant Ríos Montt amnesty from genocide charges. Judge Galvez ruled that the 1986 amnesty was invalid and that, in fact, the 1996 National Reconciliation Law, promulgated during the country’s peace accords, explicitly prevents the applicability of an amnesty to genocide and crimes against humanity charges. On June 15, 2012, the First Chamber of the Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Galvez’ ruling. On April 16, 2013, midway through the genocide trial, Guatemala’s Supreme Court chamber dealing with amparos, granted Ríos Montt’s request for relief, holding that the appellate court had not provided a sufficient foundation for its decision.

On March 19, the trial began in Guatemala City at the Tribunal Primero A de Mayor Riesgo (Tribunal Primero A). Ríos Montt stood trail for genocide and other charges related to atrocities committed against members of the country’s Mayan Ixil population. On April 18 2013, the trial was annulled by a first-instance judge, Carol Patricia Flores, who had been suspended from the case in 2011 and then reinstated by a judgment of the Constitutional Court.

The Constitutional Court issued decisions regarding some of the major legal challenges which caused the trial to be temporary suspended. After two weeks the suspension was lifted and the trial was re-convened.

On 10 May 2013, the 86-year-old Ríos Montt was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the crime of genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity by Tribunal Primero A. Judge Yassmin Barrios stated that Ríos Montt was fully aware of plans to exterminate the indigenous Ixil population during his 1982-1983 rule. Tribunal Primero A cancelled any alternative measures and ordered his immediate detention.

On 20 May 2013, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court annulled the trial judgment on procedural grounds and set the trial back to where it was on 19 April.

On 27 May 2013, the divided Constitutional Court re-affirmed its ruling partially annulling the trial, in a more detailed “clarification” (aclaracion) issued by the three-judge majority.

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Related developments

Due to the fact that Tribunal Primero A had already issued a verdict, it was forced to recuse itself from the case. On 4 June 2013, the other high-risk tribunal in Guatemala - Tribunal de Primero B de Mayor Riesgo - was assigned to the case. The trial is expected to start in 2014, as the schedule of the Tribunal Primero B, presided over by judge Irma Jeannette Valdez Rodas, is booked until April 2014 (Spanish).

On 11 June 2013, Ríos Montt was released from the military medical centre and placed again under house arrest.

In November 2013, it was reported that the Montt trial would restart in January 2015.

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Core legal questions

  • 10 May 2013, Tribunal Primero A Decision: Was Ríos Montt individually responsible for the crime of genocide and for crimes against humanity? 
  • 20 May 2013, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court Decision: Were the accused’s rights to an attorney and an impartial tribunal violated?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Article 25 of the American Convention on Human Rights.
  • Articles 265, 268 and 272 of the Political Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala.
  • Articles 8, 10, 42, 44, 46, 47, 56, 57, 60, 61, 67, 149, 163 and 185 of the Law on Constitutional Protection and Actions.

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Court's holding and analysis

On 10 May 2013, the Court declared that ‘Ríos Montt had full knowledge of everything that was happening and did not stop it’ and that ‘the acts the Ixil suffered constitute the crime of genocide’. (p. 7)

On 20 May 2013, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court annulled the trial judgment on procedural grounds and set the trial back to where it was on 19 April 2013.

The first procedural ground was violation of the accused’s due process. The court ruled that Ríos Montt was temporarily left without a legal defence as his lawyer was briefly expelled from the courtroom after he accused the presiding judge of bias against him. 

In addition, the Constitutional Court accepted the constitutional challenge brought by the defence that the Tribunal Primero A had not complied with the orders of the Appeals Court, even though the latter had recognised the Tribunal as having fully complied in a judgment just the day before the release of the verdict.

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Further analysis

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Instruments cited

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Additional materials

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