A former Guatemalan military ruler has denied charges that he ordered the extermination of Ixil Mayas while testifying for the first time at his genocide trial.
Efrain Rios Montt, 86, who ruled Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983 during the height of its civil war, argued on Thursday that prosecutors had failed to prove his involvement in the killings.
"I declare myself innocent,'' the former general told the three-judge tribunal as many in the audience applauded.
"It was never my intention or my goal to destroy a whole ethnic group."
Rioss Montt said: "I never ordered attacks on a specific race. I never did it, and of everything they have said, there was no clear participation.''
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a genocidist to enter the kingdom of God
The hearing was attended by representatives of indigenous, human rights and student groups as well as former soldiers and family members of victims.
Benjamin Geronimo, president of the Justice and Reconciliation Association, told the tribunal that he survived massacres and killings that claimed the lives of 256 members of his community.
"I saw it with my own eyes, I'm not going to lie. Children, pregnant women and the elderly were killed,'' Geronimo, an Ixil Indian who spoke on behalf of the victims, said.
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a genocidist to enter the kingdom of God.''
The remark prompted applause and cries of "justice'' from the audience.
Rios Montt is being tried together with Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, a 68-year-old former general who was a high-ranking member of the military chiefs of staff during Rios Montt's administration.
Rodriguez Sanchez's lawyer denied the charges against him.
Rios Montt seized power in a March 23, 1982, coup, and ruled until he was overthrown just over a year later.
Prosecutors say that while in power, Rios Montt was aware of, and thus responsible for, the slaughter of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayas in the towns of San Juan Cotzal, San Gaspar Chajul and Santa Maria Nebaj in Guatemala's western highlands.
Prosecutors asked on Wednesday that both men be sentenced to 75 years in prison.
Francisco Garcia Gudiel, Rios Montt's defence lawyer, denied the charges during closing arguments on Thursday, saying: "My defendant never ordered, never ran, never planned, and never oversaw what he is accused of doing.''
A verdict is scheduled for Friday, although the judges have given no indication when they might deliver the verdict.