Guatemala’s highest court threw out the genocide conviction and prison sentence against ex-dictator General Efrain Rios Montt on Monday.
The decision, made by the country’s Constitutional Court, was a huge legal victory for Rios Montt, 86, but also a blow to human rights advocates, who believed his conviction was a sign that Guatemala’s courts were through with impunity for the most powerful.
General Rios Montt was sent to prison immediately after his conviction on May 10. A three-panel tribunal found him guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was slated to serve 80 years, or more likely the rest of his life.
But the ex-dictator was soon moved to a military hospital for medical tests. Now that Guatemala’s highest court has overturned his conviction, Rios Montt will head back to house arrest until his trial can be continued. He has been held under house arrest since his case started in January 2012.
Legal experts have said that repeating the trial before the same tribunal may not happen, because it amounts to a form of double jeopardy. However, it is unclear if the rest of the trial will stay in limbo, or if a new tribunal must happen.
General Efrain Rios Montt was found responsible as former commander in chief for several massacres and rapes, along with the forced displacement of the Maya’Ixil ethnic group. All of the alleged crimes took place during the dictator’s 17-month rule between 1982 and 1983.
The conviction for Rios Montt was the first time a former Latin American leader was convicted of the crimes in his home country. It was also the first official acknowledgement of genocide that happened during the country’s 36-year civil war.
Now that the Guatemala court has overturned Rios Montt’s conviction, Constitutional Court secretary Martin Guzman explained that the trial will have to go back to where it stood on April 19, in order to solve several appeal issues. While lawyers for the prosecution aim to appeal the decision, lawyers for the former dictator aim to have his case completely dismissed.