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Guatemala cancels atrocity conviction of former dictator

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Guatemala cancels atrocity conviction of former dictator


Guatemala will put former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt back on trial. On 10 May he was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, but the Central American country’s Constitutional Court has overturned that conviction on procedural grounds. One of the lawyers of the 86-year-old in April objected to two of the three presiding judges hearing the case.

Rios Montt will be retried for his role in the killings of more than 1,700 indigenous Maya Ixil villagers by the armed forces.

He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

A senior court official said what had transpired during the trial after 19 April was annulled. It began in March.

The dictator seized power in a bloodless coup in March, 1982, and held it for 17 months. In that time, tens of thousands of Maya villagers suspected of helping Marxist rebels were killed, tortured and raped by government forces.

Rios Montt has repeatedly denied the charges against him.

Judge Yasmin Barrios read out: “By unanimous decision, the court declares that the accused, Jose Efrain Rios Montt, is responsible as the author of the crime of genocide. He is responsible as the author of the crimes against humanity committed against the life and integrity of the civilian residents of the villages and hamlets located in Santa Maria Nebaj, San Juan Cotzal and San Gaspar Chajul.”

The conviction was hailed as a landmark for justice: no other former head of state has been condemned by his own country’s tribunal.

As many as 250,000 people were killed in Guatemala’s civil war from 1960 to 1996.

When Rios Montt lost power, he retired from the military, returned to politics and later unsuccessfully ran for president. As a congressman, he had immunity from prosecution. He left Congress in 2012.

As an ally against left-wing guerrillas during the Cold War, Rios Montt was backed by the United States, with explicit support from then President Ronald Reagan. When he took power, he was also a born-again Christian in a California-based evangelical church.

After civilian survivors had given their accounts of the atrocities, the sentencing judge said today’s government, Congress, judiciary, interior minister and minister of defence “must ask for forgiveness from the Maya population”.

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