GUATEMALA CITY – A Guatemalan judge on Thursday ordered the suspension of the genocide trial of former U.S.-backed dictator Efrain Rios Montt, a move protested by prosecutors who vowed that proceedings would continue as planned.
Judge Carol Patricia Flores was recently reinstated to the case after being recused from it in February 2012. She ruled that all actions taken in the case since she was first asked to step down in late 2011 are now null, sending the trial back to square one.
"I am not doing this because I want to, but because it has been ordered by the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court," said Flores, while relatives of the victims cried and shouted at her that she was "a sold-out judge."
She made the announcement after the day's proceedings ended abruptly when the defense lawyers for Rios Montt stormed out of the court room arguing that the trial is illegal and needs to go back to the pre-trial phase.
Rios Montt ruled Guatemala in 1982-83 following a military coup and governed during one of the bloodiest periods of the country's civil war. He is accused of presiding over the killing of 1,771 indigenous Ixiles in a "scorched earth" campaign aimed at wiping out support for leftist guerrillas.
Rios Montt's defense lawyers in November 2011 filed a complaint to remove Flores from the case alleging she was biased. Flores charged Rios Montt with genocide and war crimes in January 2012, a month before she was recused from the case.
Flores did not explain why she threw out all actions since the process to remove her began, instead of since when she actually stepped down.
Guatemala's constitutional court reinstated her to the case last week. By setting the legal process back to November 2011, she is forcing prosecutors to start over again.
But Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz called Flores' decision illegal and said that prosecutors would use all available resources to stop the judge from interfering in the trial headed by a three-judge panel.
"We have been asked to be in the court room tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. and we will be there to continue the trial," Paz y Paz said.
Guatemalan human rights activist Helen Mack said Rios Montt's defense lawyers are using every delay tactic they can find.
"The defense is intent in stopping the trial and denying Guatemalans their right to know the truth," Mack said.
The trial against the 86-year-old former general started in March after courts solved more than a 100 complaints and injunctions filed by the defense. Since then, the court has heard the harrowing testimony of dozens of people who survived the military offensive.