Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt denied charges he ordered a massacre of indigenous people during his 1982-1983 regime, as he testified for the first time at his genocide trial.
“I declare myself innocent,” the 86-year-old told the court after asking to take the stand in the final arguments of his landmark trial.
“I never had the intention, the aim to destroy any national ethnic group,” he said. “I am not genocidal.”
Rio Montt denied the prosecution’s charge that he authorized military plans to exterminate the Ixil Maya population.
“I never authorized, I never signed, I never ordered attacks against a race, an ethnic group or a religion. I never did!” the retired general thundered in a courtroom packed with survivors of the country’s civil war, rights activists, relatives of the accused, and journalists.
The former strongman, taking sips of water during his 50-minute testimony, insisted that he had no control over the actions of troops operating in indigenous areas.
“I don’t know what the squad leader did. I was the head of state,” he said.
Prosecutors have requested a 75-year prison sentence against Rios Montt and his former military intelligence chief, Jose Rodriguez, over the massacre of 1,771 Ixil Maya people in the northern Quiche region of the Central American nation during its civil war.
“They were barbaric deaths, indescribable,” said Edgar Perez, a lawyer for victims. “In the atrocities you have heard about here, there had to be military planning.”
The Indians, he said, were attacked “just because they were Ixils” and Rios Montt “had control over that tool of power,” the army.
The massacre was one of the darkest chapters in the 36-year conflict, which pitted leftist guerrillas against government forces until 1996, leaving some 200,000 dead or “disappeared,” according to the United Nations.
Rios Montt accused left-wing rebels of committing human rights violations against civilians.
“The men of the EGP (Guerrilla Army of the Poor) ordered the killing of these poor people and now I am the one who has to pay for the crime of genocide,” Rios Montt said.
In the war, indigenous people were often attacked on suspicion they were collaborating with leftist rebels.
But Rios Montt denied that his regime had plans to eliminate the identity of the Maya peoples and that, to the contrary, he promoted development programs.
“My job as head of state was to put back on track a nation that was on the brink,” Rios Montt said. “Guatemala was failing and, excuse me your honor, the guerrilla was at the doors of the (presidential) palace.”
The court will announce the date for the verdict after hearing all the final arguments.
If Rios Montt is found guilty, he would be the first ex-Latin American dictator convicted of genocide — a systematic attempt to eliminate an entire group of people for ethnic, religious, racial or other reasons.