Former Guatemalan dictator found guilty of genocide

Former head of state Efrain Rios Montt sentenced to 50 years in prison

Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt sits in the Supreme Court of Justice as he waits for his sentencing in Guatemala City. Photograph: Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters

Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt sits in the Supreme Court of Justice as he waits for his sentencing in Guatemala City. Photograph: Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters


A Guatemalan court has found former dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity during the bloodiest phase of the country's 36-year civil war.

He was sentenced to 50 years in prison on the genocide charge and 30 years for crimes against humanity. It was the first time a former head of state had been found guilty of genocide in his or her own country.

Rios Montt (86) took power after a coup in 1982, and is accused of implementing a scorched-earth policy in which troops massacred thousands of indigenous villagers. He entered the court yesterday to boos and cries of "Justicia!" or justice.

Prosecutors say Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson to try to rid Guatemala of leftist rebels during his 1982-1983 rule, the most violent period of a 1960-1996 civil war in which as many as 250,000 people died. He was tried over the killings of at least 1,771 members of the

Maya Ixil indigenous group, just a fraction of the number who died during his rule. He denies the allegations.

Judge Yasmin Barrios, who presided over the trial, told a packed courtroom that as the commander in chief of Guatemala's armed forces, the general knew about the massacres of Ixil villagers living in mist-shrouded hillside hamlets in El Quiche department and did nothing to stop them or the aerial bombardment of the refugees who had fled to nearby mountains.

The crowd packed into the courtroom was quiet for much of Barrios' reading, but cries of "Justicia! Justicia!" erupted when she pronounced the lengthy sentence and orderedRios Montt to begin serving it immediately.

As the general tried to walk out a side door, Judge Barrios shouted at him to stay where he was and called for security forces. An hour after the verdict and sentence were read, Rios Montt was escorted from the courtroom by a dozen police officers. He said nothing.

Wiping tears from his eyes, Antonio Cava (41), a leader of the Ixil group that first brought the case, said the sentence had "broken impunity and achieved justice."

"We showed them that we're not communists," said Cava, who was a child when soldiers killed 95 men in his village. "We are simply villagers." For international human rights organisations, the trial took on a significance beyond Guatemala's own history.

Adama Dieng, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, said last month that the case was the first in which a former head of state had been indicted by a national tribunal on charges of genocide.

The "historical precedent," and especially a guilty verdict, he said, could serve as an example to other countries "that have failed to hold accountable those individuals responsible for serious and massive human rights violations." Yet the trial's international significance was irrelevant to the Maya Ixil Indians who had testified. "He gave the order," said Elena de Paz Santiago (42) as she waitedfor the verdict.

Ms Santiago had testified that she was 12 when she and her mother were taken by soldiers to an army base and raped. The soldiers let her go, but she never saw her mother again. "Each one of us who is watching," she said, nodding at the rows of Maya Ixil sitting behind her, ``has lost their mother or their grandparents. That is why we are here. "God wants him to go to jail," she said of Rios Montt.

"God knows that we are telling the truth."

The villages of the Mayan highlands endured the worst brutality in the early 1980s, the darkest period of Guatemala's 36-year civil war. During much of the 17 months of Rios Montt's rule, the army intensified and systematised a scorched-earth policy aimed at flushing out small bands of leftist guerrillas who had taken up arms in the hills.

In the cities, security forces had identified labor and student leaders as individual enemies of the state and snatched them off the street to be killed or disappeared, but the military campaigns against the Mayan communities did not bother to select their targets.

Military planning documents simply described all the Ixil as guerrilla supporters. In court testimony, Patrick Ball of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group in San Francisco estimated that from April 1982 to July 1983, 5.5 per cent of the

Maya Ixil population were killed. The proportion for the non-indigenous population was 0.7 per cent. In reopening such a searing chapter of Guatemala's history, the trial deepened the already profound abyss between Guatemala's left and right.

Allies of Rios Montt published newspaper supplements celebrating the army's fight against communism. The country's deeply conservative oligarchy, represented by a business association known by its initials as CACIF, declared in a statement that it was important to "know how to leave behind the past." The involvement of the United States in Guatemala's politics received scant attention during the trial.

The US military had a close relationship with the Guatemalan military well into the 1970s before the Carter administration cut off aid. When Rios Montt seized power in March 1982, the Reagan administration initially cultivated him as a reliable Central American ally in its battle against Nicaragua's Sandinista government and Salvadoran guerrillas.

Those interests initially influenced the way US officials treated evidence of the massacres that were being committed in the countryside. They were quick to accept military explanations that guerrillas had carried out the killings, said Kate Doyle, a Guatemala expert at the National Security Archive, a Washington research group that works to obtain declassified government documents. By the end of 1982, however, the state department had gathered evidence that the army was behind the massacres.

Even then, however, the administration insisted that Rios Montt was working to reduce the violence. After a regional meeting, US president Ronald Reagan described him as "a man of great personal integrity and commitment."