By Edgar Calderón and Henry Morales Arana
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala – Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and war crimes Friday in a landmark ruling stemming from massacres of indigenous people in his country’s long civil war.
Ríos Montt thus became 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, dragged on for 36 years and left around 200,000 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.” 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.
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.
Ríos Montt remained stone-faced 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 a swarm of journalists 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,” Ríos Montt said, adding he would appeal.
“I am not upset because I abided by the law,” he said, insisting he did the right thing for his country by fighting the rebels, which he described as “a national problem.”
Ríos 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 José Rodríguez were accused of ordering the army to carry out 15 massacres that left 1,771 Maya Ixil Indians dead in Quiché in northern Guatemala. Rodríguez was acquitted.
During the trial, which began in March, more than 100 survivors testified, some of them indigenous women covering their faces with colorful blankets. 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.
Ríos 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.
Ríos Montt seized power in March 1982 but was overthrown by his defense minister in August of the following year.
In 1994, he returned to active politics by winning a seat in congress and eventually went on to become its speaker.
In 2001, relatives of war victims accused Ríos Montt of genocide and a decade later, upon losing the immunity that came with being a lawmaker, legal proceedings against him finally began.
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