A judge in Guatemala on Monday ordered the trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt for genocide in the killings of more than 1,750 indigenous people during his 1982-83 regime.
The 86-year-old Rios Montt sat stoically as Judge Miguel Galvez ordered the opening of a trial “for the crimes of genocide” and crimes against humanity, while relatives of victims lit firecrackers outside the Supreme Court.
The landmark decision marks the first time that genocide proceedings have been brought in the Central American country over the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, leaving an estimated 200,000 people dead, according to the UN.
Rios Montt, who has been under house arrest for a year, is accused of orchestrating the massacre of more than 1,750 indigenous Ixil Maya people in Quiche department during his time in power.
“There are serious bases on which to put him on oral and public trial for his alleged participation in the crimes attributed to him,” Galvez said in a small courtroom packed with relatives of victims and rights activists as well as retired soldiers who back Rios Montt.
Human Rights Watch called the decision to prosecute Rios Montt a “major step forward for accountability in Guatemala.”
“The fact that a judge has ordered the trial of a former head of state is a remarkable development in a country where impunity for past atrocities has long been the norm,” said the group’s Americas director, Jose Miguel Vivanco.
The judge also decided to open a genocide trial against retired general Jose Rodriguez, a former member of the military leadership who arrived in court in a wheelchair.
Galvez told the two former military officers to appear at a hearing on January 31 for the presentation of evidence. The composition of the tribunal would be decided at a later date.
Until then, Rios Montt will remain under house arrest while Rodriguez will stay at a military hospital where he has been treated for his failing health.
Rios Montt is known for his “scorched earth” campaign against people the government claimed were leftist rebels but were often in fact members of indigenous Maya communities who were not involved in the conflict.
His attorneys argued that Rios Montt, who came to power in a coup in 1982, was never aware of the massacres committed by the army.
“They want to stick something to Rios Montt that he never did,” said his lawyer, Danilo Rodriguez, who happens to be a former guerrilla.
Another attorney for Rios Montt, Francisco Palomo, told reporters the defense team would appeal Galvez’s decision.
“We will be presenting an appeal. We are not afraid of facing a trial, as long as it is a fair one… not a lynch mob,” said Palomo.
Dressed in a gray suit, the former general arrived on time for the hearing. Upon his entry into the courtroom, a small group of retired military men saluted him.
Outside the courthouse in the center of Guatemala City, a group of relatives of victims set up a makeshift altar, where they placed flowers and other offerings, and burned incense.
Indigenous Maya communities make up a majority of the population in rural Guatemala.