Can a society as divided as Guatemala’s face its past and move forward?
A Guatemalan court has convicted former military leader Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, sentencing him to 80 years in prison.
A three-judge tribunal on Friday 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 Ixil, indigenous people of Mayan descent living in Guatemala, when he ruled the country from March 1982 to August 1983 at the height of its 36-year civil war.
“The defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide,” Judge Jazmin Barrios said. “The corresponding punishment must be imposed.”
She said he was also guilty of war crimes.
The court, filled with victims and their relatives, erupted in applause and cheers.
Rios Montt has maintained that he never knew of or ordered the massacres while in power.
He did not express emotion as the verdict was read. When the judge said his house arrest was being revoked and he would be sent to jail, he nodded.
Later, he told reporters that his conscience was clear, as he derided the verdict.
“It is an international political show that is going to hurt the soul of the Guatemalan people, but we are at peace because we never spilled, or stained our hands with, the blood of our brothers,” Rios Montt said.
“I am not upset because I abided by the law,” he said, insisting he did the right thing for his country by fighting the “national problem” of rebels.
The war between the government and leftist rebels cost more than 200,000 lives and ended in peace accords in 1996.
The 86-year-old former general is the first former Latin American leader ever found guilty of such a charge.
He can appeal the verdict.
In a court hearing, Benjamin Geronimo, president of the Justice and Reconciliation Association, said 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.
Prosecutors say that while in power, Rios Montt was aware of, and thus responsible for, the slaughter of at least 1,771 Ixil people in the towns of San Juan Cotzal, San Gaspar Chajul and Santa Maria Nebaj in Guatemala’s western highlands.