Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for the killing of more than 1,700 indigenous Ixil Mayans during the Central American country’s 36-year civil war.
Rios Montt, 86, who held de facto military rule for 17 months from 1982-1983, was found guilty yesterday of mass killings, rape and torture of Mayan Indians during his “scorched earth” campaign to eliminate support for guerrillas. Dozens of Ixil Mayans testified against Rios Montt during the trial, which was the first time a former head of state has been prosecuted for genocide in a national court.
In announcing the verdict, Judge Yasmin Barrios detailed the violent killings of the Ixil people and said the court ruled that Rios Montt was “aware of the massacres and did nothing to stop them.” Rios Montt, who said he never “authorized, signed, proposed or ordered attacks on a racial, ethnic or religious group,” was sentenced to 80 years in prison. At the reading of the verdict, the courtroom exploded with cheers.
“The evidence of massacres, of torture, of disappearance and abuse against Ixil Mayans was pretty overwhelming,” said Geoff Thale, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, who has followed justice issues in Guatemala for more than two decades. “A general, who for years headed a military that committed human rights abuses without concern for prosecution or punishment, has finally been brought to justice.”
Rios Montt’s trial was temporarily halted last month when a judge who was taken off the case in 2011 was reinstated and requested that proceedings be rolled back to the time when she was removed. That prompted a protest by seven Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchu and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The case was reconvened by Barrios, who oversaw the duration of the trial, on May 8.
Guatemala has one of the world’s highest impunity rates, with about 98 percent of criminal cases remaining unsolved, according to the United Nations.
“A justice system, an attorney general, a set of judges, a supreme court, has managed to function well enough and resist hard line and conservative pressures and act impartially to make this trial happen,” Thale said. “That matters not just for General Rios Montt, not just for the Ixil Maya, not just for the victims of the war, but for the rule of law and justice in Guatemala in general.”