GUATEMALA CITY – In a move that looks to be a major setback for prosecutors and human rights activists, a Guatemalan judge on Thursday ordered the suspension of the genocide trial of former U.S.-backed dictator Efrain Ríos Montt.
Judge Carol Patricia Flores was recently reinstated to the case after she recused herself in February 2012. She ruled that all actions taken in the case since she was first asked to step down 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."
The comment was a reference to last week's decision by the Constitutional Court to declare her competent to carry out the pre-trial process. In Guatemala, criminal cases first go to a single judge who decides whether to charge a suspect and whether there is enough evidence to send a case to a trial headed by a three-judge panel.
Flores made Thursday's announcement after the day's proceedings ended abruptly when the defense lawyers for Ríos Montt stormed out of the court room arguing that the trial is illegal and needs to go back to the pre-trial phase.
Ríos Montt's lawyers in November 2011 filed a complaint to remove her from the case alleging that she was biased. In January 2012, Flores charged Ríos Montt with genocide and war crimes, and she was recused from the case in February. Another judge took over and the case eventually went to a three-judge panel.
By setting the legal process back to November 2011, before she filed the charges, she is forcing prosecutors to start over.
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.
"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.
Ríos Montt ruled Guatemala in 1982-83 following a military coup in 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.
Guatemalan human rights activist Helen Mack said Ríos 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.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.