Guatemala's Supreme Court on Monday began a retrial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt for genocide, but in a fresh twist to a bizarre legal saga suspended it as the defense sought the removal of one of the judges hearing the case.
Rios Montt's opponents accuse him of implementing a scorched earth policy in the bloodiest phase of the country's 36-year civil war. The 88-year-old was found guilty in May 2013 of overseeing the killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil population during his 1982-83 rule.
However, his 80-year jail sentence was thrown out less than two weeks later by the country's Constitutional Court on a legal technicality after persistent efforts by Rios Montt's defense team to derail the trial with complex appeals.
Rios Montt's defense lawyers argue one of the three judges hearing the new trial is biased.
Rios Montt attended the hearing, brought in on a stretcher after his lawyers sought to excuse him on medical grounds.
The fresh trial delay stoked fears that justice may ultimately not be served.
“[It] is not only extremely frustrating but also is revealing of the lack of solid independence of the judiciary in Guatemala, which is clearly sensitive to political pressure,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas executive director at Human Rights Watch.
“Their record has been quite unimpressive particularly regarding efforts to nullify and stop the criminal prosecution of this dictator,” he added.
Rios Montt's conviction was hailed as a landmark for justice in the Central American nation, where as many as 250,000 people were killed in a bloody civil war lasting from 1960 to 1996.
During his rule, his government launched a fierce offensive in which soldiers raped, tortured and killed tens of thousands of Maya villagers suspected of helping Marxist rebels.
Thousands more were forced into exile or had to join paramilitary forces fighting the insurgents.