Historic Guatemala genocide trial begins Tuesday

March 18, 2013

GUATEMALA CITY – Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt is expected to stand trial on Tuesday on genocide charges, despite attempts by defense attorneys to postpone the start of the historic proceedings.

Ríos Montt, 86, is accused of ordering the execution of 1,771 members of the indigenous Ixil Maya community in the Quiché region during his 1982-1983 regime.

The trial marks the first time genocide proceedings have been brought in relation to the 36-year civil war in Guatemala that ended in 1996, leaving an estimated 200,000 people dead, according to United Nations estimates.

The strongman was known for his “scorched earth” campaign against people the government claimed were leftist rebels but were often in fact members of indigenous Mayan communities who were not involved in the conflict.

The proceedings, expected to last several months, will include 130 witnesses and some 100 experts. Retired Gen. José Rodríguez, a former member of the military leadership, is to stand trial along with Ríos Montt.

The former president – who insists he was not aware that the army was committing massacres during his administration – was initially set to stand trial in August, but the date was moved up by five months to March 19.

According to the defense team, the start of oral arguments is on hold while judges consider a defense appeal. Ríos Montt’s lawyer, Francisco Palomo, claimed it was “impossible” to start the trial on Tuesday.

“What will happen is we’ll all gather, but it [the trial] won’t start,” he said.

However, lawyer Hector Reyes, who represents the victims, said court officials indicated on Friday that the trial would begin at 8:30 a.m. local time Tuesday.

Over the course of the proceedings, he said, more than 900 pieces of evidence would be presented, including testimony, forensic reports, videos and speeches.

The trial is seen as historic by human rights groups.

“The prosecution of a general for these heinous crimes 30 years after they happened is testament to the courage and tenacity of victims and humanitarian organizations in Guatemala,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch.

The group will serve as an observer at the kickoff of the proceedings.

Ahead of the trial, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general who was also accused of human rights violations, caused a stir by saying that no genocide was committed during the war.

“I hold the view that there was no genocide in Guatemala, … There was no policy or document or order to slaughter or kill people,” he said last week.

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