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Guatemala court strikes down ex-dictator's genocide conviction

GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala’s Constitutional Court on Monday struck down the 80-year prison sentence given to former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt as well as his conviction for genocide and war crimes.

The 3-2 ruling annulled all proceedings that took place after the trial was temporarily halted on April 19 due to a technicality, overturning the May 10 conviction but leaving most of the trial and testimony intact.

It was not immediately clear whether the proceedings from April 19 could be repeated, nor whether Ríos Montt, 86, would remain in prison.

“The sentence is hereby annulled” on an appeal from Ríos Montt’s attorneys, said the Constitutional Court’s spokesman Martín Guzmán.

The court said the lawyers’ claim of a procedural error during Ríos Montt’s trial had standing and as such struck down the conviction and sentencing.

The court said the latter part of the trial had to be voided because it resumed under a procedural error when the court that convicted him refused to review a recusal put forth by defense attorney Francisco García.

The Constitutional Court spokesman, however, could not say what the convicting court should have done differently to address the procedural error, news agency Reuters reported.

Ríos Montt was rushed to a military hospital a week ago after fainting in court before a hearing on reparations for victims, his lawyer said.

Ríos Montt’s conviction made him the first Latin American ex-dictator to be convicted of trying to exterminate an entire people, during a brief but particularly gruesome stretch of a war that started in 1960, dragged on for 36 years and left around 200,000 people dead or missing.

Under his rule, the army carried out a “scorched earth” policy against indigenous peoples, accusing them of backing rebel forces.

Ríos Montt and his former intelligence chief, José Rodríguez, were charged with ordering the army to carry out 15 massacres that left 1,771 Ixil Mayans dead in Quiché and other villages in northern Guatemala.

Rodríguez was acquitted, but the Constitutional Court ruling also annulled that acquittal. It is uncertain if and when another attempt at a trial will resume, and if the case will be allowed to be tried by the same court that delivered the conviction and an 80-year prison sentence for the former dictator – 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity.

Victims, family members, human rights workers, prosecutors and others involved in the case were outraged by the higher court ruling, while Ríos Montt’s supporters, who claim genocide never occurred, celebrated.

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