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Ex-Dictator Denies Role in Guatemalan Massacres

Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, the former dictator who ruled Guatemala during one of the bloodiest periods of its long civil war, faced the court trying him for genocide on Thursday and denied any role in the horrors narrated by Mayan survivors of massacres committed in the remote highlands three decades ago.

In a rambling statement lasting almost an hour, the 86-year-old retired general addressed a panel of three judges who will determine his guilt. "I never authorized, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered an attack against any race, against any ethnic group," he said, slipping into the cadence of his later years as a civilian politician.

"I never did it, and of everything that has been said here, there has never been any evidence of my participation," he said, his voice rising.

The speech was an emotional coda to a trial that has reopened the wounds of Guatemala's civil war and pulled old tensions tighter in one of the world's most unequal societies.

The defendant's words served as a cornerstone of his defense, which has called a handful of witnesses. His lawyers began their closing arguments on Thursday.

Prosecutors and lawyers for the victims laid out a vivid case during a month of testimony that began March 19. Almost 100 witnesses, many of them speaking Maya-Ixil, described the brutality they had endured, many of them as children or teenagers.

During General Ríos Montt's 17-month rule in 1982 and 1983, the army swept through the Mayan highlands to flush out leftist guerrillas, slaughtering villagers, laying waste to their hamlets and crops, and killing livestock.

After the testimony from survivors, the prosecution called forensic experts who described mass graves. Military experts explained Guatemala's rigid chain of command and deciphered army planning documents from the time. They testified that the high command considered the Ixil to be subversives, believing that they fed and supported guerrillas who had set up operations high in the mountains.

At the end of the prosecution's case, the proceedings were suddenly suspended last month when another judge tried to annul the trial. The tortured legal wrangling raised concerns that supporters of General Ríos Montt, who is being tried with a co-defendant, his former intelligence chief, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, had found a way to influence the courts.

Since then, Guatemala's highest court has handed down rulings that the lead trial judge, Yasmín Barrios, has interpreted to allow testimony to continue. In its closing arguments on Wednesday, the prosecution asked the court to sentence both men to 75 years for genocide and crimes against humanity.

When he asked to speak on Thursday, General Ríos Montt made use of a right under Guatemalan law to address the court without being called as a witness, so he was not cross-examined. It was the first time he had spoken out about the charges against him, filed in January 2012 after he lost immunity from prosecution when he retired as a legislator.

"I presented myself voluntarily to the public prosecutor," he said. "I didn't want to be called somebody who committed genocide because I have never been that. I have never ordered that."

As he spoke, the packed courtroom listened intently as he argued that local commanders were in charge, and that he, as commander in chief, did not know of their actions.

Instead, he sought to redeem his reputation by portraying himself as a statesman concerned with rescuing the country from a guerrilla threat that had reached "the doors of the National Palace," and he argued that tons of needed food reached the Ixil villages.

"Subversion isn't a question of gunshots," he said. " It's a question of underdevelopment, it's a question of illness, it's a question of hunger, it's a question of poverty."

[Source: By Elisabeth Malkin, The New York Times, 09May13]

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