Judge suspends genocide trial of Guatemala's Rios Montt

By Mike McDonald

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A judge suspended the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt on Thursday, saying all actions taken since November 2011 are void in the case of the retired general charged with war crimes.

Judge Patricia Flores told a court in Guatemala City that the order had come from the country's top courts to suspend the trial because she had been wrongly removed from the case, prompting complaints that the ruling made a mockery of justice.

Rios Montt, 86, who ruled between 1982-1983, was ordered to trial for genocide and crimes against humanity in January to answer for a counterinsurgency plan that killed over 1,700 members of the Ixil indigenous group during Guatemala's long civil war.

For decades, Rios Montt avoided prosecution, protected as a congressman by a law that grants immunity to public officials.

He left Congress in 2012 and Flores formally charged him with genocide and war crimes in January that year.

Rios Montt has denied the charges and his lawyers argued that procedural errors meant the trial should be annulled. Flores became a focal point of the lawyers' efforts.

In November 2011, a lawyer representing another man then under investigation with Rios Montt won a decision to recuse Flores from the case on the grounds she would not be impartial. But she was not informed of the ruling until 2012.

She then stood down from proceedings, whereupon prosecuting attorneys appealed that decision. Finally, last month a court declared that Flores should not have been recused.

That prompted Rios Montt's lawyers to argue that Flores should have been handling the case from the start.

Flores said Guatemala's constitutional court and the supreme court of justice had therefore ordered her to be reinstated and for the case to be rolled back to when she was recused. Prosecutors said they would appeal that ruling.

"This makes a mockery of the law," said state prosecutor Orlando Lopez. "Returning the entire process back to a previous phase that has already concluded is illegal."

Earlier on Thursday, Rios Montt's lawyers stormed out of the court after arguing the process needed to be reset, and left him sitting alone in the courtroom without legal counsel. He tried to reach his lawyers by telephone, but got no answer.

Prosecutors allege that Rios Montt, an army general before becoming head of a junta that ruled Guatemala, turned a blind eye during the 1960-1996 civil war as soldiers used rape, torture and arson to rid Guatemala of leftist insurgents.

His defence team has argued Rios Montt had no control over battlefield operations and that genocide did not take place.

(Editing by Simon Gardner, Philip Barbara, Christopher Wilson and Lisa Shumaker; Writing by Dave Graham)