Ríos Montt after his conviction on May 10 (Photo: AP)
Guatemala's top court has thrown out a conviction against former military dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The court has ordered that his trial be restarted from the point it was at on April 19.
An estimated 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war, most of them indigenous Ixil Mayans. Ríos Montt's 17 months in power in the early '80s are believed to have been one of the most violent periods of the war.
He is being tried over allegations that he targeted Ixil Maya people during his time as head of state.
The trial is a milestone, according human rights activists: Ríos Montt, 86, is the first former head of state to be tried in his own country for genocide. He was convicted on May 10.
In the May 10 verdict, the court found that Ríos Montt had ordered the deaths of 1,771 people, all of whom were members of the Ixil Maya ethnic group, during his time in office in 1982-1983. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
There were celebrations both inside and outside the courtroom when the verdict was read out.
Ixil Maya people whose family members were killed in the civil war celebrate after the May 10 conviction (Photo: AP)
By overturning the conviction, the court "throws into disarray the historic trial of Gen Ríos Montt," according to the BBC.
So why did the court decide - in a 3-2 vote - to annul the conviction?
It's because of some confusion that took place around April 19. On that day, Ríos Montt was briefly left without a defence team. His legal team had walked out of the court the previous day to protest what they called "illegal proceedings."
The court then ordered that Ríos Montt be defended by a public lawyer, but he refused, demanding the return of lawyer Francisco Garcia, who had represented him earlier in the trial.
Garcia had already been expelled from the trial once for trying to have the judges dismissed "for bias," and he was expelled again on April 19 after accusing the presiding judge of failing to hear his legal challenges.
According to the latest ruling, the trial should have paused at that point to allow time to resolve Garcia's legal challenges. Since it was not, the court has decided to invalidate the guilty verdict and the 80-year sentence that went with it.
Amnesty International has called the decision to overturn the verdict "a devastating blow for the victims of the serious human rights violations committed during the conflict."
Some members of the Ixil Maya group who were allegedly targeted by the military during Ríos Montt's rule have testified at the trial, offering harrowing stories about the atrocities they say they faced.
The court will now resume the trial, beginning from the state of play on April 19. Any testimony and other statements delivered before that date will still be admissible, but closing arguments will be given again.
Both sides in the trial are currently preparing to return to the court to repeat the final weeks of the trial.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, was in the red chair last season to talk about the challenges facing any court that tries world leaders and others on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Check out that interview below: