By Mark O’Brien
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — A former dictator who ruled during one of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war will stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
A Guatemalan court ruled on Monday that the trial of Efrain Rios Montt would convene this week. Montt, 86, is accused of ordering the murder, torture, and displacement of more than 1,700 indigenous people between March 1982 and August 1983.
Judge Miguel Angel Galvez also threw out 13 appeals presented by Montt’s defense, finding sufficient evidence to prosecute Montt and retired Gen. Jose Mauricio Rodriguez for the killings. Rodriguez is accused of ordering the mass killings, known as the “scorched earth” campaign.
Neither defendant reacted to the judge’s ruling, but families of victims, along with human rights workers, cheered and applauded before setting off fireworks outside, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune.
Human rights advocates called the Montt’s prosecution a symbolic victory for victims of one of the most devastating and horrific conflicts in Central America.
“Until recently, the idea of a Guatemalan general being tried for these heinous crimes seemed utterly impossible,” said Jose Miguel Vivianco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that a judge has ordered the trial of a former head of state is a remarkable development in a country where impunity for past atrocities has long been the norm.”
Montt, who became de facto president during a coup in 1982 before being ousted in another coup in 1983, is the first former president to be charged with genocide by a Latin American court.
“It’s the beginning of a new phase of this struggle,” said Paul Seils in an interview with the Associated Press. Seils is vice president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, which has worked on war-crimes cases in Guatemala. He said the decision to prosecute was “a good step forward,” but he expected the trial would face stiff resistance from loyalists to government-allied forces during the civil war.
A United Nations commission estimated 200,000 people were killed during the war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996. The commission attributed 93 percent of the human rights abuses it documented to government forces, concluding the military committed “acts of genocide.”
Montt will stay under house arrest until his trial, according to the Judge Galvez’s order. He is currently in custody at a military hospital, where he was admitted last year for health problems.
The trial is scheduled to convene on Thursday.
For further information, please see:
Human Rights Watch — Guatemala: Rios Montt Trial a Milestone for Justice — 28 January 2013
Latin American Herald Tribune — Guatemalan Ex-Dictator to Stand Trial for Genocide — 28 January 2013
National Public Radio — Guatemala Ex-Dictator to Stand Trial on Genocide — 28 January 2013
Reuters — Guatemala Court Orders Trial of Former Dictator, Rejects Appeals — 28 January 20