March 20, 2013 / 7:48 PM / 5 years ago

Guatemalan survivors revisit horror of war in ex-dictator's trial

Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt uses headphones in the Supreme Court of Justice during the first session of his trial in Guatemala City March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Survivors of Guatemala’s bloody civil war relived the massacre of relatives as they took the stand on Wednesday to testify against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who is accused of allowing genocide during the 36-year conflict.

Rios Montt, 86, the first ex-head of state to stand trial for crimes against humanity in his own country, for years was not prosecuted for alleged atrocities committed during his 1982-1983 rule, because of his protected status as a congressman.

But after leaving Congress last year, Rios Montt was ordered to face trial by a judge who found sufficient evidence linking him to the killing of more than 1,700 indigenous people in a counterinsurgency plan executed under his command.

On the second day of the landmark trial, civil war victims recounted horrific tales of watching their family members killed and their homes torched by soldiers.

“They came and they massacred my mother, my brother and my brother-in-law. They burned homes,” said Tomas Chavez, 45, in tears as he recalled the November 1982 massacre in Nebaj in the north-western state of Quiche.

Diego Santiago, 83, echoed Chavez in describing an April 1983 massacre near the same village.

“We went to hide in the mountains. I managed to escape from the people who killed my wife,” he said, adding the army killed his 17-year-old son and set fire to homes.

Prosecutors allege Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson against leftist insurgents and targeted indigenous people in a “scorched earth” offensive that killed at least 1,771 members of the Mayan Ixil group.

The defence team argues that Rios Montt did not control battlefield operations and that there was no genocide in Guatemala.

Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt (C) exits the court during a break in the first session of his trial in Guatemala City, March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

‘POLARIZED SOCIETY’

Humans rights advocates and victims have welcomed the trial as a sea change for Guatemala.

“It’s a strong voice against impunity and a strong voice in favour of victims,” said Nobel Peace Prize-winning rights activist Rigoberta Menchu, who attended the trial. “We hope that from now on, we (the indigenous people) are accepted by Guatemala’s polarized society that carries with it the genocide of the past.”

Activists hold pictures of missing people outside the Supreme Court of Justice during the first session of the trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt in Guatemala City, March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Wiliam Gularte

Roughly 200,000 civilians, most of them of Mayan descent, were killed during the 1960-1996 conflict as a string of right-wing governments attempted to rid Guatemala of leftist guerrilla fighters suspected of being in league with communists.

An additional 45,000 people went missing.

A United Nations-backed truth commission report released after the 1996 peace accords found that the army and paramilitary groups were responsible for more than 90 percent of the hundreds of massacres carried out during the war.

Born in Huehuetenango, a province in Guatemala’s rural western highlands dotted with indigenous communities, Rios Montt took power in March 1982 when he led a military coup that toppled President Angel Guevara.

He remained politically active after being overthrown in a coup in August 1983, serving in Guatemala’s legislature and launching an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2003.

Genocide trials have been rare for ex-leaders in Latin America, which was scarred by bloody civil conflicts and repression. Charges were raised against Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet, but he died in 2006 before standing trial.

A three-judge panel must debate the material and set a date on whether to sentence or exonerate Rios Montt. A prosecutor has said that up to 130 victims and 75 experts are expected to testify during the trial, which could run several months.

Reporting by Mike McDonald; Writing by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Eric Beech

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