A court in Guatemala has ordered that a former dictator should stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Jose Efrain Rios Montt allegedly orchestrated a campaign of murder against indigenous people.
The court in Guatemala City on Monday threw out 13 appeals presented by the defense, declaring the opening of a trial "for the crimes of genocide."
Rios Montt, aged 86, is accused of overseeing the massacre of more then 1,750 indigenous Ixil Maya living in the region of Quiche. The alleged killings are said to have taken place during a counter-insurgency operation between 1982 and 1983.
"It has been established that there is serious enough evidence to submit the parties involved to a public trial," said Judge Miguel Angel Galvez. The decision means a three-judge panel will hear evidence against Rios Montt.
The outcome, which means that genocide proceedings relating to the country's decades-long civil war will be brought for the first time ever, was applauded by human rights campaigners.
"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 Americas director at Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco.
As well as the genocide claims, prosecutors allege that Rios Montt, who ruled as president for 17 months after he came to power in 1982, permitted rape, torture and arson against civilians.
Efforts to undermine rebels
The strategies were allegedly part of a "scorched earth" policy employed by the leader, who was also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. While the operation was ostensibly targeted at leftist militants, Ixil communities are said to have borne the brunt of the campaign.
Until late last year, Rios Montt had enjoyed immunity from prosecution because he was serving as a Guatemalan congressman, having done so for the previous 15 years.
He has been under house arrest since January last year, soon after he lost a re-election race and his privileged status expired.
Prosecutor Orlando Lopez alleged on Monday that ex-general Rios Montt had wanted to wipe out the Ixil people, believing them to be supportive of guerrilla fighters against the Guatemalan state.
More than 200,000 people, mostly Mayan Indians, were killed or went missing during the 1960-96 civil war, with entire villages sometimes exterminated.
Rios Montt is to appear at a hearing on January 31 for presentation of evidence.
rc / jlw (AFP, AP, Reuters)