Guatemala's top court annuls Rios Montt genocide conviction

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala's highest court on Monday overturned a genocide conviction against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and reset his trial back to when a dispute broke out a month ago over who should hear the case.

Rios Montt was found guilty on May 10 of overseeing the killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil population during his 1982-83 rule. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

It was unclear when the trial might restart.

When in power, 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 leftist rebels.

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.

However, the country's Constitutional Court on Monday ordered that all the proceedings be voided going back to April 19, when one of the presiding judges suspended the trial because of a dispute with another judge over who should hear it.

At that point, a number of appeals were lodged with the Constitutional Court over alleged irregularities in the handling of the case.

One related to Francisco Garcia, one of Rios Montt's defense lawyers, who had just won an appeal to be readmitted to the case. 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 Constitutional Court said the judges should have suspended the trial until the recusal attempt had been officially resolved. A spokesman for the court could not say how the recusal bid needed to be formally settled.

The court said it had given the judges who sentenced Rios Montt 24 hours to comply with its order.

(Reporting by Mike McDonald; Editing by Dave Graham and Bill Trott)