May 11 update via the Associated Press:
GUATEMALA CITY — A Guatemalan court has convicted former dictator Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, sentencing him to 80 years in prison.
The 86-year-old former general is the first former Latin American leader ever found guilty of such a charge.
A three-judge tribunal issued the verdict after the nearly two-month trial in which dozens of victims testified about horrific atrocities.
Prosecutors said Rios Montt must have had knowledge of the massacres of Mayan Indians when he ruled Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983 at the height of the country’s 36-year civil war.
Rios Montt said he never knew of or ordered the massacres while in power.
The war between the government and leftist rebels cost more than 200,000 lives and ended in peace accords in 1996.
Previous Mint Press News report, originally published May 7:
The Guatemalan High Risk Tribunal has decided to resume the trial against former President Efraín Rios Montt and his intelligence chief Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, who are accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the Guatemalan Civil War. The 36-year conflict, which lasted from 1960 until 1996, was one of the bloodiest in Latin American history and resulted in the deaths of 200,000 people, including large numbers of Indigenous Mayan civilians.
Such atrocities would not have been possible without the support of then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who supported the Guatemalan government with direct military aid. Internal documents show that Reagan’s goal was to exterminate not only “Marxist guerrillas” but people associated with their “civilian support mechanisms.”
More than a decade later, the leaders thought to be responsible for the atrocities face a trial wherein they could spend the rest of their lives in prison if convicted. The trial has been fraught with obstacles, as the defense team has filed more than 100 motions to delay the trial since November 2011.
The latest evasive maneuver occurred April 18 when Circuit Court Justice Carol Patricia Flores challenged the higher court by stating that key evidence had been wrongfully excluded in the pretrial phase in 2011, but was later readmitted to the court record. Flores argued for a completely new trial, while defense lawyers demanded the case be thrown out altogether.
The next day, trial judge Yasmin Barrios fought back, announcing that the proceedings would carry on, but left the final word to the Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s court of last resort. Last week, the Constitutional Court ruled to resume the historic trial, marking the first time a former head of state in Latin America has been brought up on charges of genocide in his own country.
It has been a slow but steady march toward justice for survivors of the government-backed paramilitaries. The first major breakthrough occurred in 1999, when a United Nations truth commission concluded that government attacks on specific Indigenous groups amounted to genocide. “The aim of the perpetrators was to kill the largest number of group members possible,” the commission’s report said.
An Indigenous Mayan group known as the Ixil suffered the worst losses during Montt’s scorched earth campaign designed to route Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, a leftist coalition rebel group widely supported by impoverished peasants, students and Indigenous peoples.
The U.N. commission researchers found that 70 to 90 percent of the Ixil villages were leveled during the war’s bloodiest period, 1981-1983.
Roughly 7,000 Ixil were killed and more than 60 percent were forced to flee into the mountains, where many more died of cold, hunger and disease. Others were killed when the army bombed them in hiding.
Tiburcio Utuy, one of the Mayan survivors scheduled to testify, spoke about the atrocities that befell his people.
“[Montt] won’t suffer the same way we suffered — but he will be scared,” 71-year-old Utuy said. “And maybe he will spend a little bit of time in prison.” Dozens like Utuy have already testified, telling stories of rape and torture.
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