The genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, which also implicates Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, has been suspended.
Judge Carol Patricia Flores suspended the trial of the 86-year-old former US-backed military general on Thursday, April 18.
Rios Montt had seized power in a military coup in 1982, and presided over one of the bloodiest chapters of Guatemala’s decades-long civil war.
He has become the first former president in the Americas to face trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Rios Montt’s seventeen-month rule over Guatemala between 1982-83 has been described as a period of scorched-earth policy, during which thousands of indigenous Maya were killed or disappeared.
Prosecutors and human rights groups inside and outside of Guatemala had worked for years, building their case against the former general who is charged in the case with the death of 1, 771 indigenous Maya, some of whose survivors reportedly wept in court when Judge Flores made the announcement to suspend the trial.
Flores, who was recused from the case since February 2012, but was recently reinstated, has ruled that all the evidence presented so far in the trial, while she was absent, is null and void. The decision has the effect of starting the trial all over from scratch.
The fate of the trial now rests with Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, which will decide, in ten days, if the trial should proceed.
Her decision to suspend the trial comes just before a string of expert witnesses were about to testify.
One such expert witness is the award-winning American investigative journalist Allan Nairn, who has done extensive coverage of the Guatemalan civil war in the highlands of El Quiché, where hundreds of Maya civilians were killed.
In an interview on the Pacifica Network news hour program Democracy Now, on Friday, April 19, Nairn told the show’s hosts, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, how he had met and interviewed both General Efrain Rios Montt and General Otto Perez Molina, the sitting Guatemalan President, when he was making a documentary film in September 1982.
After Democracy Now played an 1982 clip in which Nairn interviewed some Guatemalan soldiers, Goodman asked them to focus on today’s President Molina’s role in the massacres.
One of Nairn’s 1982 video clips showed a high-ranking military officer whom Nairn had come to know as “Major Tito,” standing over several dead bodies, reading a political pamphlet, as he casually explained the reasons for the killing of “insurgents.”
Nairn explained the connection between Otto Perez Molina and Major Tito: “Yes, the senior officer, the commander in Nebaj, was a man who used the code name ‘Major Tito.’ … it turns out that the man’s real name was Otto Pérez Molina.
“Otto Pérez Molina later ascended to general, and today he is the president of Guatemala. So he is the one who was the local implementer of the program of genocide which Ríos Montt is accused of carrying out.”
“The army swept through the northwest highlands. And according to soldiers who I interviewed at the time, as they were carrying out the sweeps, they would go into villages, surround them, pull people out of their homes, line them up, and execute them.
“A forensic witness testified in the trial that 80 percent of the remains they recovered had gunshot wounds to the head,” Nairn said.
Nairn said that he had asked Ríos Montt about the practice of killing civilians on two different occasions.
“The first interview I did with him two months after he seized power in 1982, and then later, years later, after he had been thrown out of power.
When I asked him in ’82 about the fact that so many civilians were being killed by the army, he said: ‘Look, for each one who is shooting, there are 10 who are standing behind him,’ meaning: Behind the guerrillas there are vast numbers of civilians.”
Nairn said that Ríos Montt was very outspoken. He would go on TV and say, “Today we are going to begin a merciless struggle. We are going to kill, but we are going to kill legally.” That was his style, to speak directly.
According to Nairn, under Guatemalan law, a sitting president cannot be prosecuted while in office.