San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Genocide trial of Guatemala dictator begins

Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt went on trial Tuesday on genocide charges over the killing of almost 1,800 indigenous people during the dark days of his country’s civil war.

The trial of the 86-year-old former strongman, who could face five decades in prison, had a raucous opening with the three-judge court rejecting several defense motions for a postponement, and expelling a lawyer representing Ríos Montt.

Wearing a dark suit and polka-dot tie, Ríos Montt sat stone-faced between his two attorneys in a packed Supreme Court room. He requested a bathroom break as the court reviewed several objections lodged by his lawyers.

Some 500 people filled the courtroom, ranging from indigenous women and rights activists looking for justice to former right-wing paramilitary fighters and relatives of soldiers still loyal to Ríos Montt’s legacy.

The retired general, who insists he was not aware that the army was committing massacres under his watch, is accused of ordering the execution of 1,771 members of the Ixil Maya people in the Quiché region during his 1982-1983 regime.

It is the first genocide trial arising from the 36-year civil war, which left an estimated 200,000 dead or disappeared.

The defense team was changed three hours before the trial began, but the new attorney was thrown out of the courtroom by Barrios for trying to block the proceedings. 

The court ordered Ríos Montt, who is under house arrest, to appear at every hearing along with retired Gen. José Rodríguez, a former member of the military leadership who is on trial with him and is housed in a military hospital.

The first day of trial lasted five hours, and expert witnesses testified on Wednesday. The proceedings are expected to last several months, with 130 witnesses and some 100 experts testifying.

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