MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt's conviction for genocide was overturned and his trial must begin anew starting from the point in mid-April when a dispute started over which judge should hear the case, the country's highest court said Monday.
A lower sentencing court convicted 86-year-old Rios Montt on May 10 of genocide and crimes against humanity, sentencing him to 80 years in prison — a landmark ruling for the Central American country whose decades-long civil war left deep scars.
As ruler from 1982 to 1983, one of the war's bloodiest periods, Rios Montt was held responsible for the deaths, rape and displacement of scores of indigenous Mayan Ixil people.
A co-defendant, former intelligence chief Gen. Jose Mauricio Rodriguez, was acquitted.
Many advocates for the Mayan Ixil group applauded the guilty verdict, but Guatemala's business leaders and those loyal to Rios Montt and the military decried the verdict.
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However, the Constitutional Court threw out the conviction over legal irregularities.
Rios Montt briefly went without legal defense when his lawyer was expelled from the courtroom for challenging a judge on April 19. That led to a drawn-out dispute over which judge should hear the case.
The high court said the trial must begin again from where it stood on April 19. It did not say, however, whether Rios Montt or his co-defendant Rodriguez are guilty or innocent.
Nevertheless, new decision has once again shaken Guatemalans and those who have watched the trial closely for months.
"This ruling is a devastating blow for the victims of the serious human rights violations committed during the conflict," said Sebastian Elgueta, Amnesty International's researcher on Guatemala.
But those protesting the ruling should realize new proceedings could again find Rios Montt guilty, leading Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre said in an editorial Tuesday.
"What happened yesterday [Monday] doesn't necessarily mean the trial is stopped," it said.
Prosecutors now are likely to present appeals to the Constitutional Court's decision. The trial could restart, or be finished.
After the May 10 sentence, Rios Montt spent three days in prison before he was moved to a military hospital. Now he is being remanded to house arrest.
Rios Montt took power in a coup in 1982 and ruled Guatemala for 17 months, during which time the army launched a "scorched earth" campaign against Maya villagers suspected of aiding Marxist guerrillas.
As many as 250,000 people may have died during the Guatemalan civil war, which raged from 1960 to 1996.
The current trial concerns the documented massacre of nearly 1,800 Ixil Maya villagers during that period. Rios Montt testified that he knew nothing of the slaughter.
Though condemned by many for the slaughter under his leadership, Rios Montt, an avowed evangelical Christian, remains popular with many conservative Guatemalans, including the country's powerful business elite.
In 1999, former US President Bill Clinton made a public apology for past Washington administrations' support for Guatemala's military regimes.
Yet the United States' role in toppling Guatemala's democratically elected government in 1954, and helping train and finance the country's authoritarian campaign to crush suspected communists for decades to follow, were left out of the trial.
“For a long time we have wanted justice and this is good,” said Ixil rape victim Elena de Paz, who testified against Rios Montt, in a GlobalPost interview.
“He won’t suffer like we did," she added, reflecting on Rios Montt's fate. "He was able to defend himself with lawyers before a panel of judges, but the justice he did to us was with sticks and machetes. He will never feel that.”
Dudley Althaus contributed reporting from Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter @dqalthaus. Mike McDonald contributed reporting from Guatemala City.