Genocide trial of former Guatemalan leader Rios Montt opens with high drama

Court rejects bid to delay Efrain Rios Montt's genocide hearing and expels defence lawyer

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 March, 2013, 2:51am


Former Guatemalan dictator José Efrain Rios Montt has gone on trial on genocide charges over the killing of almost 1,800 indigenous people during the dark days of his country's civil war.

The trial of the 86-year-old former strongman, who could face five decades in prison, had a raucous opening on Tuesday with the three-judge court rejecting several defence motions for a postponement, and expelling a lawyer representing Rios Montt.

Wearing a dark suit and polka dot tie, Rios Montt sat stone-faced between his two lawyers in a packed Supreme Court room. He requested a bathroom break as the court reviewed several objections lodged by his lawyers.

Some 500 people filled the courtroom, ranging from indigenous women and rights activists seeking justice to former right-wing paramilitary fighters and relatives of soldiers still loyal to Rios Montt's legacy.

The retired general, who insisted he was not aware that the army was committing massacres under his watch, is accused of ordering the execution of 1,771 members of the Ixil Maya people in the Quiche region during his 1982 to 1983 regime.

It is the first genocide trial arising from the 36-year civil war, which pitted leftist guerrillas against government forces and ended in 1996, leaving an estimated 200,000 dead or "disappeared", according to the United Nations.

"In this trial, we will prove that military plans were implemented against the indigenous population ... and that counter-insurgency strategies were ordered," prosecutor Orlando Lopez said.

The defence team was changed three hours before the trial began, with lawyer Danilo Rodriguez, a former guerrilla member, replaced by Francisco Garcia Gudiel, a self-declared "enemy" of judge Jazmin Barrios.

But Barrios threw Garcia Gudiel out of the courtroom for trying to block the proceedings.

The court ordered Rios Montt, who is under house arrest, to appear at every hearing along with retired general Jose Rodriguez, who is on trial with him.

Rios Montt was known for his "scorched earth" campaign against people the government branded leftist rebels, but who were often indigenous Mayans not involved in the conflict.

The proceedings are expected to last several months, with 130 witnesses and some 100 experts testifying. The trial is seen as a historic step in a country with such high impunity that most crimes go unsolved.