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Former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt goes on trial

Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt faced charges of genocide and crimes against humanity on the first day of a tense trial which few believed until recently would ever be possible.

Ríos Montt headed a military government that began with a coup in March 1982 - and ended with another 17 months later - at the height of a civil war in which the army severely weakened a leftwing insurgency by carrying out massacres of the civilian population in the Mayan indigenous heartland where the guerrillas were based.

Prosecutors are hoping to prove that Ríos Montt must have been aware, and was consequently responsible for, a set of atrocities that resulted in the deaths of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayans in three towns in the country's western highlands while he was head of the government and counterinsurgency strategy.

They are expected to pay particular attention to the strict military chain of command he himself appeared to boast about in an interview for a 1982 documentary in which he said, "If I can't control the army, then what am I doing here?"

The retired general sat facing a group of victims in a Guatemala City courtroom while activists demonstrated in support of the prosecution outside.

Reed Brody, a representative of the US-based Human Rights Watch, said the 86-year-old former dictator was "alert and taking notes" during the proceedings and occasionally even appeared jovial.

His lawyer, Francisco Garcia, told the court that no genocide had ever existed. "Ríos Montt never gave a written or verbal order to exterminate the Ixils in this country," he reportedly said.

Jose Rodriguez Sanchez, a former high-ranking member of the military also on trial, denied charges against him.

An estimated 200,000 people died and 45,000 disappeared during Guatemala's 36-year civil war that ended with peace accords in 1996 and represents one of the bloodiest episodes in modern Latin America history.

A United Nations backed truth commission blamed most of hundreds of massacres during the war on the army and army-backed paramilitaries. It concluded that attacks on specific indigenous groups constituted genocide because the strategy was to kill as many members of these groups as possible.

The prosecution of Ríos Montt is the first time that a former head of state has been put on trial for genocide by a national tribunal.

Efforts to bring him to trial have been going on for many years but his position as leader of a popular rightwing political party, as well as elected posts in the national parliament that have him automatic immunity, made it all seem like fantasy to many.

The final push began in January 2012, but the trial was repeatedly stalled by a Ríos Montt's defence team.

Brody said: "This is not only about the country's past but about its present as well. In a country in which the powerful have always been above the law, just the fact of this trial is a historic affirmation that justice can exist."

[Source: By Jo Tuckman, The Guardian, London, 19Mar13]

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small logoThis document has been published on 14May13 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.