Wednesday, April 24, 2013

With Future of Rios Montt Trial Uncertain, U.S. Sends War Crimes Diplomat to Guatemala

After Guatemala’s Constitutional Court declared it would pass the genocide case against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt to a judge who has pushed for its annulment yesterday, the U.S. Department of State announced it will send its chief war crimes expert to the country, seemingly giving its implicit backing to the trial.

Yesterday afternoon the Court held a press conference to announce its decision on a controversial ruling by a lower judge who called for all recent testimony in the case against Rios Montt to be annulled.

The judge, Carol Patricia Flores, announced last Thursday that the recent hearings had been held in spite of unresolved technicalities in the case, and ordered all proceedings since November 2011 to be declared void. Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz publicly condemned the ruling, and vowed that her office would challenge it in court. Judge Yasmin Barrios, the head of the tribunal overseeing the case, convened the court briefly on Friday to announce that the trial would be put on hold pending a Constitutional Court ruling on its future.

Yesterday’s press conference stopped short of giving a final verdict on the matter. According to Prensa Libre and elPeriodico, the Court declared it had reached a decision on six of twelve total petitions related to the case. One of these ordered Judge Barrios to hand over the record of the witness testimony of the past several weeks to Judge Flores. The latter now has 24-48 hours to resolve the issue of whether the proceedings were legal with regards to the rights of the defendants.

The decision to send the case back to Judge Flores may revert its progress to an earlier date, but the Constitutional Court has not yet ruled on the issue of annulment. The Court did, however, find that Rios Montt’s right to defense had been violated, and reinstated Francisco Garcia Gudiel, who was expelled from court on March 19, the first day of the trial, as his defense attorney. His defense team has appealed to the Court to invalidate all proceedings since that date, but it has not ruled on this matter either.

Meanwhile, the United States has sent what seems to be a clear message of support for the trial. Yesterday evening the State Department announced it would be sending Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J. Rapp to the country. According to the press release, Rapp will arrive in Guatemala today for a two-day visit in which he will “attend meetings and consultations related to the trial.” This will put him in the country for Flores’ pending announcement, suggesting the timing of his visit is a calculated move by the State Department to tacitly endorse the case against Rios Montt.

News Briefs
  • Human Rights Watch has released a statement on the judicial reform package being debated today in the Argentine Congress, calling for lawmakers to reject the proposals because they undermine judicial independence. As noted in yesterday’s post, the changes would make it more difficult to challenge laws and executive orders, as well as subject top judges to popular elections.
  • Pope Francis met today with a delegation from the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which advocates on behalf of the relatives of children of those disappeared in the Dirty War. According to Clarin, the meeting was brief and occurred near the end of his scheduled public meeting time. The paper also reports that he accepted a letter from the group’s president requesting that the Church provide information it may have about the whereabouts of children stolen from dissidents during the dictatorship.
  • On Friday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that he would consider running for office in next year’s elections for a shortened term of only two years. He also suggested that presidential terms should be extended to six years and re-elections (legalized by a constitutional amendment passed in 2005 during the popular government of Alvaro Uribe) should be scrapped. However, Reuters reports that Santos backed away from this statement on Monday, due to a lack of support in Congress.
  • Colombia presented a report on its progress on meeting human rights goals yesterday in its Universal Periodic Review before the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. WRadio reports that some 80 UN member states voiced support for Colombia’s ongoing peace talks with FARC rebels, but some expressed reservations about failure to prosecute military abuses and extrajudicial killings.
  • About 1,800 police officers in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa have gone on strike to demand better working conditions and pay, according to the AP.
  • The L.A. Times reports that the highly-regarded Pact for Mexico, an agreement among the country’s major parties to follow a certain legislative agenda, is on the verge of collapse after fresh evidence that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) participated in vote-buying in order to ensure the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
  • While Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has been sworn in and assumed office without waiting for the results of an audit of the recent elections, opposition leader Henrique Capriles declared on Monday that there is enough evidence to suggest that vote should be voided and new elections should be held. Opposition blog Caracas Chronicles notes that the opposition is now more united than it has been in years, and a consensus supporting new elections appears to be forming.
  • A U.S. federal judge has ruled that the Obama administration must release the names of all graduates of Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) -- formerly known as the School of the Americas -- a program used to train members of Latin America militaries at Fort Benning, Georgia. According to The Hill, the judge ruled that the government “has not established that the privacy interests advanced are substantial, and has not shown through admissible evidence that the release of this information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

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