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Guatemalan president accused of involvement in civil war atrocities

A former soldier has implicated the Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina, in civil war atrocities during the trial of the former US-backed military strongman Efraín Ríos Montt, proceedings that have heard witnesses recount a litany of horrors.

Hugo Reyes, a soldier who was a mechanic in an engineering brigade in the area where atrocities were carried out, told the court that Pérez Molina, then an army major, ordered soldiers to burn and pillage during Guatemala's dirty war with leftist guerrillas in the 1980s.

"The soldiers, on orders from Major 'Tito Arias', better known as Otto Pérez Molina co-ordinated the burning and looting, in order to later execute people," Reyes told the court by video link.

Pérez Molina, who retired as a general, was elected president for the conservative Patriotic party and assumed office on 14 January 2012. As president, Pérez Molina is protected by an amnesty granted to public officials and cannot be subpoenaed.

The secretary general of the presidency, Gustavo Martínez, called the testimony "poorly intentioned declarations and in bad faith". He said the presidency reserved the right to take action against Reyes.

In line with the gruesome testimony that has marked the trial of Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, Reyes described what happened in one massacre in the early 1980s.

"The people who were to be executed arrived at the camp beaten, tortured, their tongues cut out, their fingernails pulled out," he said.

Ríos Montt is on trial along with his former head of intelligence in connection with the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Indians during the military dictatorship he led from 23 March 1982 to 8 August 1983, during which he led a US-backed counterinsurgency against guerrillas.

The court also heard testimony from the victims of massacres. Some told the judges about the shelling of villages, beheadings and body parts kicked around like footballs.

"I saw them kill an old woman and officers cut off her head," said Julio Velasco Raymundo, 40, who witnessed one massacre as a child. "Those officers played with the old woman's head like it was a [foot]ball."

He said he saw soldiers dig trenches with earth-movers, then send children to collect rubbish, which the troops threw on to the bodies, soaked in gasoline and set on fire.

He also told the court he saw the Guatemalan army shelling villages full of civilians.

Velasco said his life was saved by a soldier who carried him away from a massacre even though a higher-ranking officer wanted to kill him.

"I remember a specialist [soldier], a man who, in spite of the war and all the things they did, there were good people," Velasco recalled. "One day the specialist put me in a tractor tyre and rolled me away, and that saved my life."

A forensic expert, Mario David García, said the bodies of pregnant women were found among the victims of massacres who were disinterred years later.

The former dictator has remained almost completely silent during the years of proceedings against him, but his lawyers have said there is no clear evidence of his responsibility for the crimes committed by Guatemalan troops.

[Source: The Guardian, Ap, 05Apr13]

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