Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and war crimes in a landmark ruling stemming from massacres of indigenous people in his country’s long civil war.
Rios Montt thus became the first Latin American ex-dictator convicted of trying to exterminate an entire group of people, in a brief but particularly gruesome stretch of a war that started in 1960, dragged on for 36 years and left around 200,000 people dead or missing.
The 86-year-old was sentenced to 80 years in prison, although he vowed to appeal. He got 50 years for genocide and 30 years for war crimes.
“The defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide,” Judge Jazmin Barrios said. “The corresponding punishment must be imposed.” She said he was also guilty of war crimes.
The court, filled with victims and their relatives, erupted in applause and cheers.
Other Latin American countries, such as Chile, Brazil and Argentina, were also ruled by cruel military despots in the 1970s and 80s and some leaders and officers have been convicted for abuses. But this was the first time an outright genocide conviction was handed down in the region.
Activists say the verdict was also historic because it marked the first time anywhere in the world that a court has found one of its country’s citizens guilty of genocide — a systematic attempt to eliminate an entire group of people for racial, religious, political or other reasons.
Other genocide convictions, like those stemming from Rwanda’s orgy of ethnic violence in 1994, were handed down by international courts.
The aged retired general appeared in court during the trial in a dapper dark suit, with a neatly cropped mustache and gel holding down his thinning gray hair. He wore glasses, and headphones to better hear the proceedings, but otherwise appeared to be healthy.
Rios Montt remained stone-faced as the verdict was read. When the judge said his house arrest was being revoked and he would be sent to jail, he nodded.
Later, he told a swarm of journalists that his conscience was clear, as he derided the verdict.
“It is an international political show that is going to hurt the soul of the Guatemalan people, but we are at peace because we never spilled, or stained our hands with, the blood of our brothers,” Rios Montt said.
“I am not upset because I abided by the law,” he said, insisting he did the right thing for his country by fighting the “national problem” of rebels.
Rios Montt seized power in 1982 and ruled for 18 months in what is widely considered one of the darkest periods of the country’s agony of civil war between the military and leftist rebels.
Under his rule, the army carried out a scorched earth policy against indigenous peoples, accusing them of backing rebel forces.
In this trial, Rios Montt and his former intelligence chief Jose Rodriguez were accused of ordering the army to carry out 15 massacres that left 1,771 Maya Ixil Indians dead in Quiche in northern Guatemala. Rodriguez was acquitted.
During the trial, which began in March, more than 100 survivors testified, some of them Indian women covering their faces with colorful blankets. Some said they had been gang-raped by dozens of soldiers, assaulted over and over until they passed out.
One witness, Julio Velasco, who was just a boy at the time, testified that at a military camp where he was taken by force, soldiers played soccer with the severed head of an elderly woman.
“I have never forgotten this and will never forget it,” Velasco testified.
Rios Montt took the stand on Thursday and denied ordering any massacres, saying he was too busy being president to micromanage the army or know what each and every military unit was doing.
The intelligence chief had also insisted there was no evidence linking him to any atrocity.
Rios Montt seized power in March 1982 but was overthrown in August of the following year.
In 1994, he returned to active politics by winning a seat in congress and eventually went on to become its speaker.
In 2001, relatives of war victims accused Rios Montt of genocide and a decade later, upon losing the immunity that came with being a lawmaker, legal proceedings against him finally began.