The genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was mired in uncertainty on Friday as judges squabbled over who should hear the case following an order to annul nearly a year-and-a-half of proceedings.
The trial was suspended on Thursday when Judge Patricia Flores, who was originally assigned to the case, ruled all actions taken since she was recused in November 2011 were void, citing an order from the country's top courts.
But on Friday one of the presiding judges said that order was illegal and requested the constitutional court resolve the matter.
Rios Montt, 86, is facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for a counterinsurgency plan conceived under his 1982-83 rule that killed 1,771 members of the Ixil indigenous group.
The trial took years to set in motion after Rios Montt's lawyers repeatedly delayed efforts to make the retired general face prosecution.
Flores' announcement sparked anger among victims of the country's 1960-1996 civil war, who want the prosecution of Rios Montt to bring justice. A former Army general, Rios Montt ruled the country during one of the bloodiest phases of the war.
Yasmin Barrios, who has overseen Rios Montt's trial with two other judges since it began last month, said Flores' order was illegal, but suspended the hearings on Friday pending a ruling by the Constitutional Court to settle the dispute.
"No public official or citizen is obliged to execute illegal orders ... and this court will not do it," Barrios told the court in Guatemala City where Rios Montt has been on trial.
More than 100 people applauded Barrios' decision and began to chant 'justice, justice' as she left the court room.
Flores' intervention came just days before prosecutors had hoped for a judgment in the trial, which has stirred up powerful emotions in Guatemala and cast a harsh light on the actions of the armed forces during the civil war.
More than a hundred victims have testified during the trial, retelling stories of torture, rape and arson that they endured during Rios Montt's 17-month rule.
One prosecution witness even implicated President Otto Perez, himself a retired general, saying that soldiers under his command carried out atrocities in the war.
The United Nations' human rights office voiced alarm on Friday at the suspension of the trial, calling it a blow to victims who have waited decades for justice.
Rights groups in Guatemala also expressed dismay.
"(Flores') decision is unimaginable," said Francisco Dall'Anese, a prosecutor who heads the U.N.-backed Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.
"Guatemala's judicial code is very clear in stating that the process cannot be rewound to a previous phase that has already concluded in order to correct errors," he added.
Initially involved in the case, Flores was recused after a lawyer representing another man then under investigation with Rios Montt complained she would not be impartial.
She was not informed of the recusal until 2012, when she stepped down. Prosecuting lawyers appealed that decision and a court overturned her recusal last month. Defense lawyers then argued she should have been kept on the case.