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Guatemalan judge orders Rios Montt trial suspended

Friday - 4/19/2013, 12:25am  ET

Guatemala's former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt sits in the courtroom as the judge orders the suspension of the trail against him and fellow General Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, on charges of genocide in Guatemala City, Thursday, April 18, 2013. Rios Montt seized power in a March 23, 1982 coup, and ruled until he himself was overthrown just over a year later. Prosecutors say that while in power he was aware of, and thus responsible for, the slaughter by subordinates of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayas in San Juan Cotzal, San Gaspar Chajul and Santa Maria Nebaj, towns in the Quiche department of Guatemala's western highlands. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)

Associated Press

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) -- A Guatemalan judge on Thursday ordered the suspension of the genocide trial of former U.S.-backed dictator Efrain Rios Montt, a move protested by prosecutors who vowed that proceedings would continue as planned.

Judge Carol Patricia Flores was recently reinstated to the case after being recused from it in February 2012. She ruled that all actions taken in the case since she was first asked to step down are now null, sending the trial back to square one.

"I am not doing this because I want to, but because it has been ordered by the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court," said Flores, while relatives of the victims cried and shouted at her that she was "a sold-out judge."

The comment was a reference to last week's decision by the Constitutional Court to declare her competent to carry out the pre-trial process. In Guatemala, criminal cases first go to a single judge who decides whether to charge a suspect and whether there is enough evidence to send a case to a trial headed by a three-judge panel.

Flores made Thursday's announcement after the day's proceedings ended abruptly when the defense lawyers for Rios Montt stormed out of the court room arguing that the trial is illegal and needs to go back to the pre-trial phase.

Rios Montt's lawyers in November 2011 filed a complaint to remove her from the case alleging that she was biased. In January 2012, Flores charged Rios Montt with genocide and war crimes, and she was recused from the case in February. Another judge took over and the case eventually went to a three-judge panel.

By setting the legal process back to November 2011, before she filed the charges, she is forcing prosecutors to start over.

Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz called Flores' decision illegal and said that prosecutors would use all available resources to stop the judge from interfering in the trial.

"We have been asked to be in the court room tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. and we will be there to continue the trial," Paz y Paz said.

Rios Montt ruled Guatemala in 1982-83 following a military coup in one of the bloodiest periods of the country's civil war. He is accused of presiding over the killing of 1,771 indigenous Ixiles in a "scorched earth" campaign aimed at wiping out support for leftist guerrillas.

Guatemalan human rights activist Helen Mack said Rios Montt's defense lawyers are using every delay tactic they can find.

"The defense is intent in stopping the trial and denying Guatemalans their right to know the truth," Mack said.

The trial against the 86-year-old former general started in March after courts solved more than a 100 complaints and injunctions filed by the defense. Since then, the court has heard the harrowing testimony of dozens of people who survived the military offensive.

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