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Former Dictator of Guatemala Ruled Mentally Unfit to Face Retrial for War Crimes

Efrain Rios Montt had already been convicted in 2013 of ordering the brutal slaughter of indigenous Guatemalans in the military's scorched earth counterinsurgency campaigns between 1982 and 1983.

by Daniel Hernandez
Jul 8 2015, 11:25pm

Photo by Luis Soto/AP

Efrain Rios Montt, the aging former dictator of Guatemala, is mentally incompetent and unable to stand trial once more for charges of genocide during Guatemala's decades-long civil war, government forensic scientists have ruled.

A Guatemalan judge this week received a government medical report that said the 89-year-old former general is unable to face a retrial for charges of ordering the massacre of 1,771 Maya Ixil indigenous Guatemalans during the military's scorched-earth campaign against guerrillas and civilians.

Children, infants, and elderly women were among those brutally slaughtered by soldiers in counterinsurgency operations, witnesses said before judges in Rios Montt's first trial two years ago.

"At this moment he is not found in plain use of his mental faculties, he is unable to properly understand any charge against him, he is unable to understand the elements of the process and the judicial proceedings, and he is unable to contribute to his own defense," the National Institute of Forensic Sciences said in its July 1 report.

The news dredging up wounds from Guatemala's painful civil war comes amid a current period of political turmoil reaching the highest office in the country. 

Tens of thousands of demonstrators in recent weeks have rallied and called on President Otto Perez Molina to step down over a fiscal corruption scandal that has already toppled vice president Roxana Baldetti, who resigned in early May. Perez Molina, himself a former general who still faces lingering allegations of abuses during his time in the civil war, has said he won't resign.

Related: Guatemala's President Says He Won't Resign After Massive Anti-Corruption Demonstration

Former Guatemalan military ruler Efrain Rios Montt defends himself in court during his trial for genocide in Guatemala City, May 9, 2013. (Photo by Saul Martinez/EPA)

A panel of judges has to rule on whether Rios Montt's retrial will go forward as planned on July 23. During a hearing in January, the former ruler was wheeled into a courtroom on a stretcher, wearing oversized dark shades, and wrapped in blankets.

Rios Montt, who assumed the presidency of Guatemala between 1982 and 1983, denied charges against him during his first trial in Guatemala City in 2013.

"I never authorized, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered any attack against a race, ethnicity, or religion," Rios Montt said in closing courtroom statements on May 9, 2013, while slamming his fists.

Rios Montt became the first former head of state to be found guilty of genocide in a court within his own country. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison, but the country's Constitutional Court overturned the conviction two weeks later over procedural mistakes.

"I never did it. And of all the things you said, there is no single piece of evidence that proves my participation," he said.

Guatemala's Commission for Historical Clarification has estimated that 10,000 mostly indigenous civilians were killed by armed forces in the 17 months Rios Montt was president, and 448 villages were literally wiped off the map. At least 200,000 people were killed overall in the government's US-backed war against guerrillas and paramilitaries between 1960 and 1996, in unrest that was rooted back to the 1940s.

Claudia Paz y Paz, the Guatemalan prosecutor who led the successful first case against Rios Montt, is now part of a special international panel investigating the case of Mexico's missing 43 students for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Related: Guatemala's Anti-Mining La Puya Protesters Are Under Siege

Follow Daniel Hernandez on Twitter: @longdrivesouth