The following article appeared in the May-June 2013 issue of NewsNotes.

Click here to read reflections on the trial from Maryknoll missioners who served in Guatemala.

During the recent trial of former president Efrain Rios Montt and former chief of military intelligence Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, observers felt as if they were on a rollercoaster ride as the trial took many twists and turns. The two men are being prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity, for violence committed against Ixil communities in the Guatemalan highlands from March 1982-August 1983. The trial, which marks the first time a former head of state has been prosecuted for genocide in the courts of the country where the crimes occurred, began on March 19.

Brother Marty Shea, MM, who attended most of the proceedings throughout the month, wrote this on April 11, "U.S. Ambassador Arnoldo Chacon was present at yesterday’s hearing – and an encouraging statement of U.S. support for the judicial process appeared in this morning’s Prensa Libre: ‘We urge all Guatemalans to respect the legitimacy and integrity of this process.’"

One week later, on April 16, a lengthy three-page ad appeared in the same Guatemalan newspaper (Prensa Libre) explaining that the genocide trial was a farce. It named international groups like the Maryknoll missioners and the Archdiocesan project "Recovery of the Historical Memory" as responsible for propaganda that led people to believe that the government was at fault for the violence that Guatemalans experienced during its long years of internal conflict. This ad placed all the blame for the violence on rebel fighters and featured photos of Guatemalan soldiers wounded at the hands of guerrilla forces.

On April 18, day 20 of the trial, after 100 witnesses and 60 experts had testified, attorneys for the defense called for an annulment of the trial and stormed from the courtroom. They accused the tribunal of violating the April 3 decision in which Judge Yassmin Barrios had provisionally accepted all the evidence proposed by the defense – the defense team insisted that the trial should have been suspended at that time in order to allow for all of the evidence to be assembled, and the judge ruled that it was acceptable for the trial to proceed.

Although Judge Barrios rejected the defense’s charge of violation, Judge Carol Patricia Flores accepted it, announced that the genocide trial was "annulled," and resolved that the tribunal should return to the state it was in on November 23, 2011. The decision would nullify all of the testimonies heard from April 3 on.

According to the April 19 entry on the website "The Trial of Efrain Rios Montt & Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez," "The judge’s resolution stunned many in the courtroom. Edgar Pérez, representing victims group AJR, asked Flores directly, ‘How can you do this to the victims?’ He reminded her that they had been waiting 30 years for justice, and that both the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights and the Guatemalan Constitution guaranteed the right to a speedy trial. The ruling left the victims in a state of ‘defenselessness and impunity.’ Pérez asked that Flores withdraw her ruling.

"Prosecutor Orlando López told the judge that she had ‘made a mockery of the victims, and a mockery of justice.’ An ongoing judicial process could not be legally blocked. He pointed out that the ruling by the Constitutional Court did not in any way indicate that the case could be returned to an earlier phase and restarted, and said she had overreached in her interpretation of the court’s order. …

"[Judge Flores] agreed that the situation was ‘lamentable’ but said she had no choice but to suspend the genocide trial. ‘I am not denying access justice to victims and I am not mocking them. I am resolving what corresponded to me to decide.’ … She asserted that was simply complying with the ... Court’s ruling.…

"Several hours after the hearing, Guatemala’s Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz held a press conference and accused Judge Flores of issuing an ‘illegal ruling’ by ordering the halt to the genocide trial. She said the Constitutional Court ruling of April 3 ordered the admission of evidence on behalf of the defense, not a stop to the proceedings. Paz y Paz said her office would act immediately to reverse the ruling."

During a reconvening on April 19, Judge Barrios stated that the tribunal had actually complied with the Constitutional Court’s order and the trial would proceed. Public defenders would be appointed in the absence of the defendants’ lawyers, and the proceedings would resume after the courts resolved the legal issue at hand. These decisions would be taken up by the Constitutional court. Since the suspension of the trial, victims and their supporters, national and international human rights groups, have urged the proceedings to move forward. Nobel Peace laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jose Ramos Horta, Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchú, joined their voices on April 23 calling for a legitimate, independent and transparent judicial process in Guatemala.

Finally, the trial resumed on April 30, but most of the time was spent sorting out who would represent the defendants. When the trial was halted on April 18 and the defense attorneys walked out, the court assigned lawyers to represent both Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez. With the resumption of the trial, re-instated attorney Francisco Garcia Gudiel will represent Rios Montt and newly appointed public defender Otto Ramirez will represent Rodriguez Sanchez.

As the trial continues, Guatemalans hold hope that those responsible for the genocide that killed their loved ones will be served with justice. For extensive updates on the trial go to here.

Note: The trial concluded on May 10 with a guilty verdict.