Guatemala's Rios Montt found guilty of genocide

Few thought this moment would come, the BBC's Will Grant reports

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A court in Guatemala has found former military leader Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.

A three-judge tribunal sentenced the 86-year-old to 80 years in prison.

Rios Montt was convicted of ordering the deaths of 1,771 people of the Ixil Maya ethnic group during his time in office in 1982 and 1983.

Survivors described horrific abuses committed by the army against those suspected of aiding left-wing rebels.

Analysis

When the Guatemalan Peace Accords were signed in 1996 after a civil war in which 200,000 people were killed, very few ever thought this moment would be reached.

In blisteringly critical language, Judge Jazmin Barrios said that as de facto president it was logical that Rios Montt knew of what was happening in the country, but did nothing to stop it.

Hunger, systematic rape and forced displacements were all used as tools of war against the Ixil people for whom merely being a member of the indigenous group was a "mortal offence" in the military government's brutal pursuit of left-wing guerrillas.

Judge Barrios's summary and subsequent sentencing of Rios Montt was everything that human rights organisations and victims' families' groups in Central America had been hoping to hear for decades. Now the 86-year-old former general is facing the rest of his life in prison, though he is almost certain to appeal on the grounds of his age.

The retired general had denied the charges, saying he neither knew of nor ordered the massacres while in power.

He is expected to appeal against the court's decision on the grounds of his age.

Rios Montt's former chief of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, who was on trial with him, was acquitted.

It is the first time a former head of state had been found guilty of genocide by a court in his or her own country.

Other genocide convictions have been handed down by international courts.

Relatives and indigenous leaders cheered when the sentence was read out by Judge Jazmin Barrios in Guatemala City.

Rios Montt was sentenced to 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity.

"The Ixils were considered public enemies of the state and were also victims of racism, considered an inferior race," Judge Barrios said.

People celebrate conviction of Rios Montt. 10 May 2013 There were cheers in the court as the verdict was read out

"The violent acts against the Ixils were not spontaneous. They were planned beforehand."

The BBC's Central America correspondent Will Grant says it is a historic decision and a huge breakthrough for human rights in the region.

During the nearly two-month trial, dozens of victims gave harrowing testimony about atrocities committed by soldiers.

An estimated 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war, the vast majority of them indigenous Mayans.

Prosecutors said Rios Montt presided over the war's bloodiest phase. They said he turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson against those suspected of supporting leftist rebels.

The trial has been beset with delays, legal loopholes and a temporary suspension.

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