Guatemala's ex-dictator to stand trial on genocide charges

Ríos Montt's legacy was one of the "darkest periods" during 36-year civil war

Guatemala's former de facto leader in the 1980s, Efraín Ríos Montt, was ordered by a judge on Thursday to stand trial on genocide charges and crimes against humanity after hearing 11 hours of testimony from the victims of army raids and massacres that took place during the country's brutal civil war.

Judge Carol Patricia Flores placed the 85-year-old Ríos Montt under house arrest after demanding that he post a 500,000-quetzal bond (48,844 euros). Human rights activists viewed the probable cause hearing as a positive step because it is the first time that a top Guatemalan leader has gone on trial for human right abuses committed during the bloody conflict. But they still remain cautious because of Guatemala's highly politicized judicial system.

Ríos Montt, who governed from 1982-1983, was immune from prosecution for 12 years while he served as a member of Congress. He stepped down as a lawmaker on January 14 when the new Congress was sworn in.

Both the former army general's defense lawyer, Danilo Rodríguez, and prosecutor Manuel Vásquez said they are both studying whether to appeal the judge's decision. For his part, Rodríguez said he may file a complaint against her because she handed down her ruling before allowing both parties to address the court. Meanwhile, the prosecution is demanding that Ríos Montt be held in preventive custody, and not at his home, because it fears, like the families of the victims, that he is a flight risk.

Elena Chávez, a member of the Ixil Indian tribe and survivor of a 1982 mass killing by the army, said that she has been waiting for years to bring the perpetrators to justice.

"On March 25, 1982, they killed my three sisters, my mother and five brothers, who were all kids. First they were questioned by [military officers], who tried to get them to give up members of the guerrilla movement. When they couldn't give them what they wanted, they were shot on the spot," Chávez told Inter Press Service (IPS). At least 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during Guatemala's 36-year-old civil war, which ended with the 1996 peace accords. According to the Historical Clarification Commission, set up under the peace agreement, 93 percent of the killings were perpetrated by the army. A UN-backed truth commission said that the Ríos Montt dictatorship marked the darkest period of the conflict, with Guatemala's indigenous population singled out.

Outside the courthouse, hundreds of people held placards with photographs of family members who were either killed or disappeared during the regime.

"There are trials that set a country's legal history, and this is one of them," wrote the Guatemala City daily Prensa Libre in an editorial Sunday. "This time, as has been said on numerous occasions, this trial is not just against the defendant but against the entire legal system. Judges need not only knowledge, but bravery and capacity to resist pressures that come from all sides."

In another event, the families of victims of the 1980 fire at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City paid tribute on Tuesday to mark the 32nd anniversary of the tragedy. Among those present were Nobel Prize-winners Rigoberta Menchú and Jody Williams. On January 31, 1980, soldiers stormed the embassy igniting a fire after indigenous peasants took over the mission. Among the 36 people who perished was Menchú's father.

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