By Mike McDonald
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - The trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt has likely collapsed after the country's top court struck down his conviction for genocide, defense and prosecution lawyers said on Tuesday.
Rios Montt was sentenced on May 10 to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity, a conviction hailed as a landmark for justice in the Central American nation where as many as 250,000 people were killed in a 1960-1996 civil war.
Rios Montt, now 86, took power after a coup in 1982 and was accused of implementing a scorched-earth policy in which government troops massacred thousands of indigenous villagers thought to be helping leftist rebels.
Guatemala's Constitutional Court ordered on Monday that proceedings be voided back to April 19, when a jurisdictional dispute broke out between judges and several appeals were lodged with the court over alleged irregularities in the case.
If the court process is written off, the retired general would have to be tried by a new set of judges. The case is now mired in a tangle of red tape.
The Guatemalan Attorney General's office said it respected the court's decision but did not agree with it.
"We believe the court's resolution resolves points that were not appealed ... at the time," it said in a statement.
The collapse of the trial of Rios Montt, one of the most divisive leaders in the conflicts that plagued Latin America during the Cold War, would make it just another statistic in the annals of Guatemala's Byzantine and weak justice system.
The Constitutional Court said that evidence submitted between the trial's start date on March 19 through April 18 still stood, but a series of legal technicalities will likely wipe out those proceedings as well, lawyers said.
"Without saying it, they threw out everything," plaintiff and human rights attorney Hector Reyes told Reuters. "There is no appeals process for their decision."
Defense lawyers have filed various injunctions with the Constitutional Court since Rios Montt was sentenced. They claimed the three-judge panel that convicted him violated due process and that procedural errors were committed.
One irregularity related to defense lawyer Francisco Garcia, who won an appeal to be readmitted to the case in April. Garcia was thrown out when the trial began for repeatedly trying to have two of the three presiding judges recused.
When Garcia was reinstated, he tried to recuse the judges again, but they rejected his bid and proceeded with the case.
The high court said the judges should have suspended the trial until the recusal attempt had been officially resolved. That would mean sending the recusal to an appeals court, then waiting for ratification from the Constitutional Court, a process that could take months, attorneys said.
However, Guatemalan law stipulates that a trial can only be suspended for 10 working days before the all hearings are annulled and proceedings must be repeated.
Lawyers said that even if the recusal was resolved before the 10 days were up, the court that handed down the sentence cannot repeat hearings since it already issued a verdict.
"In practical terms, this trial is not only suspended from April 19 onward, it will likely have to start over with a separate court," defense attorney Moises Galindo told Reuters.
"I imagine the separate court will start the trial on day one in order to hear everything and develop their own decisions regarding the evidence."
Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group, said legal technicalities should not be allowed to derail due process in Guatemala.
"Endless appeals, shopping for friendly justices, and seeking to delay verdicts and sentencing are classic techniques of those seeking to avoid justice in Guatemala," he said in a statement after the Constitutional Court's decision.
Nearly 100 war survivors testified at the trial, telling of rape, torture and arson they endured under Rios Montt's 1982-83 rule. His genocide conviction stemmed from the deaths of at least 1,771 members of the Ixil indigenous group during a military offensive on his watch.
Rios Montt spent two nights in jail before being transferred to a military hospital.
(Editing by Dave Graham and Cynthia Osterman)