Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Rios Montt Trial Slated for January 5, But Amnesty Ruling Pending

Guatemala’s Constitutional Court -- the same court that annulled Efrain Rios Montt’s guilty sentence on genocide charges in 2013 -- has paved the way for the ex-dictator to face a new trial next month. But while human rights advocates have welcomed the news, an overdue ruling on a 1986 amnesty decree could sink the case altogether.

Amid all the reporting on last week’s breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations, another important story got lost in the headlines. On December 18, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled in favor of an appeal filed by the attorney general’s office against a lower court decision that sought to reverse the Rios Montt trial to the investigative phase it moved out of in November 2011. The trial, in which Rios Montt and former intelligence chief Jose Mauricio Rodriguez will face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, has been scheduled for January 5.

Last week’s ruling is a welcome development in the struggle to prosecute the former dictator, whose ill health and advanced age -- he turned 88 this year -- left some worried that he could pass away before a verdict was reached on his alleged crimes. But it comes too late for some of the victims in the Rios Montt case. Edgar Perez, a lawyer with the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) who represents the victims, has told the Associated Press that three witnesses of civil war-era atrocities have died since the trial was annulled in May 2013. Nevertheless, Perez said that his clients are prepared to return to the courtroom to repeat their accusations against the general.

Even the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala has issued a statement on the scheduled trial, promising to follow it closely and noting in no uncertain terms that “the outcome of this case will reflect the status of rule of law in Guatemala.”

Still, it is too soon to celebrate the Constitutional Court ruling. Rios Montt’s defense lawyers have long maintained that he is exempt from prosecution under the terms of an amnesty for civil war abuses issued in 1986. As El Periodico reports today, this motion has been sitting in an appellate court for months, and more than 60 judges have excused themselves from issuing a ruling on the matter. The Guatemalan paper claims to have made repeated inquiries into the case, each time receiving no answer as to why the appeal had not been resolved.

This silence is worrisome, and leaves open the possibility that the three appellate judges currently reviewing the amnesty -- perhaps already bristling at international outcry over the rampant corruption behind their nominations --- could rule in favor of Rios Montt’s claim at the last minute.

News Briefs
  • The Chinese firm behind Nicaragua’s planned interoceanic canal, which the AP notes has been opposed by environmental groups and affected residents, will officially break ground in the project on Monday. Writing for Fusion, Tim Rogers has an excellent rundown of the biggest controversies surrounding the planned canal, noting doubts over its alleged economic impact, environmental concerns and worries over increasing Chinese influence in the country.
  • A new development appears to have complicated the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire, announced on Saturday. El Colombiano and El Espectador report that rebels in Cauca province captured a soldier during an ambush the day before the ceasefire went into effect, and the army claims he is being held hostage.
  • All of the reporting on the shady ties between the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and construction firm Grupo Higa has made an impact. Animal Politico reports that the company has dropped plans to bid on a proposed high-speed train linking Mexico City to Queretaro, following reports that linked the company to a luxury home belonging to the president’s wife.
  • Venezuela is mounting a full court press against U.S.  plans to issue targeted sanctions against officials linked to human rights abuses. Ultimas Noticias reports that the Venezuelan diplomatic mission in the OAS is pushing for the regional organization to include language rejecting the sanctions in a proposed resolution on improved U.S.-Cuba ties. Meanwhile, Buzzfeed reports that the Venezuelan government is hiring a new lobbying firm, Hogan Lovells LLP, to look out for its interest on Capitol Hill.
  • The Guardian reports on efforts to fight human trafficking in Peru, which have been complicated by economic growth and changing migration patterns even as officials demonstrate increased willingness to tackle the issue.
  • The government of Cuba has pushed back against recent  remarks by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who told reporters that improved relations would increase the likelihood of Cuba handing over fugitives on the island like Assata Shakur. The Cuban head of North American affairs has told the AP that the island reserves the right to shelter such fugitives.
  • NPR, the Miami Herald and the L.A. Times all report on an interesting detail in the release of the Cuban Five prisoners: the U.S government allowed one of the detained men to artificially inseminate his wife as “something of a humanitarian gesture,” thanks to the advocacy of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
  • The Associated Press profiles the extent of child labor in Honduras, where officials estimate that 500,000 minors-- or some 15 percent of the youth population -- hold jobs.
  • The Washington Post takes a look at Brazil’s deepening Petrobras scandal, in which dozens of politicians have been accused of taking bribes and kickbacks from companies linked to fixed contracts. For many transparency advocates in the country, the investigation represents a hopeful sign that Brazil has turned an important page in the fight against corruption.