GUATEMALA CITY — Former dictator Efrain Rios Montt’s conviction of genocide is a historic moment in a country still healing from a brutal, three-decade civil war and his trial offered Guatemala’s oppressed indigenous communities their first chance to be heard, human rights activists said.
Relatives of those killed and activists celebrated the 80-year sentence handed down by a tribunal to Rios Montt on Friday, a sweet moment in their long struggle to punish the former dictator who presided over one of the bloodiest chapters of a war that killed some 200,000 people, mainly indigenous Mayans.
During the trial Ixil Mayans, who have long suffered discrimination, stood up and testified about mass rapes, the killings of women and children, and other atrocities that authorities had often denied took place.
“It’s important that victims were given a voice, that they were given an opportunity to be heard, to feel vindicated, to show they are not crazy and that what they went through did happen,” said human rights activist Helen Mack, whose sister Mirna was killed in 1990 while documenting abuses against indigenous communities during the war.
“It’s a painful process for Guatemala but we need go through it if we want to heal our wounds as a society,” said Mack.
But she warned that it remains to be seen if justice will be served in the case, despite the conviction of the 86-year-old ex-general for genocide and crimes against humanity.
“This sentence is still not firm because Rios Montt’s lawyers have already said they will work to nullify it,” she added.
The ruling was the state’s first official acknowledgment that genocide occurred during the 36-year civil war that ended with peace accords in 1996. It was also the first time such a sentence for genocide was ever handed down against a former Latin American leader in his own country. For Guatemalan Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu the unprecedented trial was an opportunity for Ixil Mayans to show other indigenous communities how to exercise their rights.
“This was achieved by the Ixil people. This could mean that everyone, all indigenous people all over the planet who have been treated with hatred, who have been branded as liars, could hopefully start living in harmony,” Menchu said.
When the guilty verdict was announced, the crowded courtroom erupted in cheers. Some women who lost relatives in the massacres wept.
Indians from ethnic Mayan groups broke into song after the verdict, singing “We only want to be human beings ... to live life, not die it.”
“This is a verdict that is just. This brings justice for the victims, justice for the people of Guatemala,” said Edgar Perez of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, one of the groups that originally brought the criminal complaint against the ex-dictator a dozen years ago.
“Judge, Judge! Restore order!” Rios Montt shouted as cameramen and photographers swarmed him after the verdict was announced.
In delivering the verdict by the three-judge tribunal, Presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios said “he knew about everything that was going on and he did not stop it, despite having the power to stop it from being carried out.”
The proceedings suffered ups and downs as the trial was suspended for 12 days amid appeals and at times appeared headed for annulment.
Prosecutors argued that Rios Montt must have had knowledge of the massacres of Mayan Indians when he ruled Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983. The three-judge panel essentially concluded that the massacres followed the same pattern, showing they had been planned, something that would not be possible without the approval of the military command, which Rios Montt headed.
Rios Montt had said he never knew of or ordered the massacres while in power. A co-defendant, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, a 68-year-old former general who was a high-ranking member of the military chiefs of staff during Rios Montt’s administration, was acquitted.
The 80-year sentence was somewhat symbolic, given Rios Montt’s age and the fact that Guatemala’s maximum sentence is 50 years. His lawyers vowed to appeal the ruling.
“This is an unjust verdict. We already knew they were going to convict him, the general (Rios Montt) even came with his suitcase packed,” said defense lawyer Francisco Palomo.
Dozens of victims testified of atrocities. A former soldier directly accused President Perez Molina of ordering pillaging and executions while serving in the military during the Rios Montt regime. Perez Molina called the testimony “lies.”
Rios Montt seized power in a March 23, 1982, coup, and ruled until he himself was overthrown just over a year later. Prosecutors say that while in power he was aware of, and thus responsible for, the slaughter by subordinates of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayas in San Juan Cotzal, San Gaspar Chajul and Santa Maria Nebaj, towns in the Quiche department of Guatemala’s western highlands.
Those military offensives were part of a brutal, decades-long counterinsurgency against a leftist uprising that brought massacres in the Mayan heartland where the guerrillas were based.
A U.N. truth commission said state forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93 percent of the killings and human rights violations that it documented, committed mostly against indigenous Maya. Yet until now, only low or middle-level officials have been prosecuted for war atrocities.