Recent days have seen a flurry of media reports offering conflicting accounts about a Guatemalan Constitutional Court decision which could pave the way for General Efrain Rios Montt to claim amnesty from charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Although the ruling was delivered on Tuesday, the fact that it was not immediately made public has complicated reporting on the decision, leading to different interpretations about its implications for his retrial, which is scheduled to begin in April of next year.
Prensa Libre first broke the story on Wednesday after obtaining a copy of the Constitutional Court ruling, and wrongly reported that a majority of the court was in agreement that Rios Montt should be exempt from prosecution in accordance with a 1986 general amnesty decree passed by the military regime. The paper also claimed that the court ordered Judge Carol Patricia Flores, who argued in favor of annulling testimony leading to Rios Montt’s guilty verdict (the conviction was eventually overturned in May), to issue a clarification of the amnesty’s applicability to the Rios Montt case.
This was swiftly picked up by Spanish news agency EFE, which spoke with a representative of the court who confirmed that the decision “opened the door” to amnesty for the ex-dictator.
But Prensa Libre’s interpretation of the ruling was flawed. El Periodico subsequently reported that Constitutional Court secretary Martin Guzman told local press that the court had not in fact endorsed the application of the amnesty decree, only instructing a lower court to order Flores to reassess it.
However, it seems even this version of events proved to be off base. Today El Periodico is reporting that the First Chamber of Appeals will be charged with re-assessing the application of the amnesty law, not Judge Flores. The president of the chamber, Judge Jorge Mario Valenzuela, has announced that he and his colleagues were given the higher court’s ruling yesterday, and said they will issue their decision today or tomorrow.
Meanwhile the Center for Human Rights and Legal Action (CALDH), a civil party in the Rios Montt trial, has objected to granting amnesty to the ex-dictator. Siglo21 reports that CALDH Deputy Director Alejandra Castillo told reporters that the organization maintains that the 1986 decree cannot legally be applied to the genocide charges he faces.
It’s worth noting that, despite the conflicting information coming from Guatemala’s mainstream media outlets, investigative news site Plaza Publica has had the most accurate coverage of developments in the Rios Montt case. On Wednesday, Plaza Publica called out Prensa Libre for its “erroneous interpretation,” and correctly pointed out that the ruling applied to the First Chamber, without mentioning Judge Flores.
Ultimately, if there’s a takeaway from this it might be that while the future of the Rios Montt case and other human rights trials in Guatemala appear to be in jeopardy, at least there is some hope for quality, independent journalism in the country.
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