May 24, 2018 / 1:44 AM / 7 months ago

Guatemala sentences four military officers for civil war crimes

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala’s high court on Wednesday handed decades-long prison sentences to four former high-ranking military officers convicted of rape and forced disappearances during the country’s bloody civil war that has yielded few criminal convictions.

(L-R) Ex-military officers Hugo Saldana Rojas, Francisco Gordillo Martinez, Manuel Antonio Callejas and Edilberto Letona are seen at court during a trial for the involvement in the forced disappearance of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen in Guatemala City, Guatemala May 22, 2018. Picture taken May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

General Manuel Benedicto Lucas Garcia, brother of the late Guatemalan president, Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, and once head of the army’s general staff, was sentenced to 58 years.

General Manuel Antonio Callejas and Major Hugo Ramiro Zaldaña received the same sentences, while Colonel Francisco Luis Gordillo was ordered to serve 33 years. A fifth official was acquitted.

About 200,000 people were killed during the 1960-1996 conflict between leftists and the government. About 45,000 are thought to have been forcibly made to disappear.

Relatively few people have been tried for the crimes and human rights violations. A United Nations-backed commission has said the army committed the majority of the atrocities.

In the case against Lucas Garcia and the three other officials, witnesses said the group participated in the 1981 torture and rape of 19-year-old Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen, who had been detained at a roadblock with political propaganda.

She escaped from a military zone days later. Army members dressed as civilians then went looking for Molina at her home, but found only her 14-year-old brother, Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, witnesses said.

He was never seen again.

Guatemala recognized its responsibility to investigate the disappearance in 2004 before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ordered a search for the missing boy and for the offenders to be identified and punished.

The country had its first conviction for forced civil war disappearances in 2009, sentencing a former military commissioner to 150 years in prison.

In 2013, genocide and human rights convictions against former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled from 1982 to 1983, were overturned by Guatemala’s top court.

He died in April while again on trial for the same crimes, although he maintained his innocence.

Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Peter Cooney

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