In a landmark ruling, former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and war crimes on Friday. The ruling stemmed from the massacres of indigenous people in the country’s long civil war.
Now, Rios Montt has become the first Latin American convicted of trying to exterminate an entire group of people in a brief but particularly gruesome stretch of a war that started in 1960, lasted 36 years and left around 2,00,000 people dead or missing.
The 86-year-old was sentenced to 80 years in prison, although he can appeal. He got 50 years for genocide and 30 years for war crimes.
“The defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide,” judge Jazmin Barrios said.
“The corresponding punishment must be imposed,” Barrios added. She said he was also guilty of war crimes.
The court, filled with victims and their relatives, erupted in applause and cheers.
Other Latin American countries, such as Chile, Brazil and Argentina, were also ruled by cruel military despots in the 1970s and 80s and some leaders and officers have been convicted for abuses.
But this was the first time an outright genocide conviction was handed down in the region.
Rios Montt remained stone-faced as the verdict was read. Later, he told mediapersons 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. He said he would appeal.
Activists say the verdict was also historic because it marked the first time anywhere in the world that a court has found one of its country’s citizens guilty of genocide – a systematic attempt to eliminate an entire group of people for racial, religious, political or other reasons.
Other genocide convictions like those stemming from Rwanda’s orgy of ethnic violence in 1994 were handed down by international courts.
Rios Montt seized power in 1982 and ruled until 1983 in what is widely considered one of the darkest periods of the country’s agony of civil war between the military and leftist rebels.
Under his rule, the army carried out a scorched earth policy against indigenous peoples, accusing them of backing rebel forces.
In this particular trial, he and his former intelligence chief Jose Rodriguez were accused of ordering the army to carry out 15 massacres that left 1,771 Maya Ixil Indians dead in Quiche in northern Guatemala. Rodriguez was acquitted.
During the trial, which began in March, more than 100 survivors testified.
Some said they had been gang-raped by dozens of soldiers, assaulted over and over until they passed out.
Another witness Julio Velasco, who was just a boy at the time, testified that at a military camp where he was taken by force, soldiers played soccer with the severed head of an elderly woman.
“I have never forgotten this and will never forget it,” Velasco testified.
Rios Montt took the stand on Thursday and denied ordering any massacres, saying he was too busy being president to micromanage the army or know what each and every military unit was doing.
The intelligence chief had also insisted there was no evidence linking him to any atrocity.