Guatemala City, Guatemala – For the first time in history, a former head of state has been found guilty of genocide for crimes committed in the country itself, marking the biggest successful prosecution in Latin America.
When Efrain Rios Montt seized control of the country in a March 1982 coup, it gave way to the bloodiest period of Guatemala’s 36-year-civil war.
The violence left 200,000 people dead and more than 45,000 disappeared, mostly people of the indigenous Ixil Maya ethnic group, according to the UN.
On Friday, a three-judge panel convicted the former military leader of genocide and crimes against humanity, sentencing him to a total of 80 years in prison.
“Genocide not only happened to the Ixil people. It happened to all of Guatemala because it ruined the country’s social fabric,” Judge Yasmin Barrios said during her ruling.
“This is why this sentence proclaims that such crimes can never happen again.”
The courtroom erupted into cheers, tears and song as the sentence was read for more than two hours.
Many held hands while others pressed their hands onto their headsets to listen in to simultaneous translation in the Ixil language.
Presiding Judge Barrios sentenced the retired general to 50 years for genocide and an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity.
It is the first time the state has acknowledged genocide occurred during the country’s brutal 1960-1996 civil war.
Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, a former intelligence chief under Rios Montt, was acquitted of all charges.
‘Taught the world a lesson’
“I am truly moved,” said Helen Mack, human rights advocate and executive director of the Myrna Mack Foundation as tears rolled down her face. “It is no longer one person’s testimony. The state has now upheld the truth.”
|Some of the defendants, like retired General Jose Rogriguez, centre, were acquitted of genocide [AFP]|
Barrios also set a hearing for May 13 to determine the amount of reparations survivors would be entitled to by the state.
“Guatemala has now set the bar and taught the world a lesson,” said 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu.
Within minutes, international outpouring of support hailed the conviction as a victory for Guatemala, a country that has been overrun by political corruption and impunity for decades.
“This was a firm step for the exercise of justice and state of law in my country,” attorney general Claudia Paz told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview. “Our democracy has grown.”
Anita Isaacs, political science professor who writes about postwar justice in Guatemala, considered it the most important day since the signing of the peace accords in December 1996.
“The trial confronted Guatemalans with a history they had never wanted to face,” Isaacs said.
“The road ahead is uncertain but Guatemalans are being given a chance to acknowledge their past and find a way of finally building a collective and inclusive democratic future.”
The genocide trial became a trending topic on Twitter and reactions spread like wildfire on other social media sites.
“Rios Montt trial and verdict remarkable developments in country where impunity for past atrocities has long been norm,” tweeted renowned US human rights lawyer and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, Reed Brody.
Earlier on Friday, thousands of Indigenous Mayans and everyday citizens had packed the Supreme Court room and waited for hours without exiting along with international observers and press. Judge Barrios had announced she would be reading her sentence later in the afternoon.
In many ways, the trial marked the first time Guatemalan society had revisited past crimes as the public ministry attempted to establish the state’s intention of exterminating indigenous Mayan populations.
|Many in the courtroom erupted into cheers, tears and song as the sentence was read [AFP]|
For years, the 86-year-old Rios Montt avoided prosecution while serving in the Guatemalan congress. A national law grants immunity to public officials. The general stepped down in January 2012 and was charged.
The attorney general’s office said that it found evidence of 1,771 killings of indigenous Mayans, including women and children. Prosecutors say more than 200 women were raped and an estimated 29,000 people were displaced.
Nearly 100 witnesses, including the survivors of mass killings, testified about forced displacement, rape, torture and forced assimilation.
Judges, prosecutors, and defence lawyers logged well over 200 court hours since the trial began on March 19.
Forensic anthropologists and experts testified to how state policies contributed to the extermination of five percent of the Ixil population.
For two months the trial polarized Guatemalan society. Proceedings were stalled in several instances in April due to legal injunctions presented by the defence and varying appeals courts to thwart prosecution efforts.
In an unprecedented turn of events, a pre-trial judge reinstated to the case even attempted to annul proceedings entirely.
Judge Carol Patricia Flores ruled the legal process be set back to November 2011, before the general had been charged. The move heightened tensions and caused outcry in the contentious trial.
In addition, a political push had come from conservative sectors of Guatemalan society, who denied genocide took place in the Central American nation.
Among those who lobbied against the trial is President Otto Perez Molina, who was personally implicated in the case after a military witness accused him of participating in the massacres.
Perez has also lobbied for ending a US ban on military aid imposed halfway through the civil war.
The US has insisted that bringing those responsible for war crimes to justice is key to ending the long-standing weapons embargo.
‘Acknowledgement of wrongs committed’
“This is an illegal sentence. It was written with a left hand not with the right,” said litigator Francisco Garcia Gudiel, insinuating the conviction was a political lynching by former left-wing fighters.
Gudiel said he would be appealing the historic sentence.
For Jo-Marie Burt, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and political science professor at George Mason University in Virginia, the sentence has already transformed the makeup of the country.
“A juridical truth establishes that there was genocide. This is the official acknowledgement of the wrongs committed against the Ixil people,” Burt explains.
“It establishes that there is no longer impunity for those crimes of the past regardless of who you are.”