The first ever domestic, war crimes trial of an ex-head of state has started in Guatemala. Former army general and dictator Efrain Rios Montt is in court on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
The trial of Rios Montt began on Tuesday. For decades, he avoided prosecution for atrocities committed during his 1982-1983 rule of the Central American nation, protected as a congressman by a law that grants immunity to public officials.
Last January, a Guatemalan judge found there was sufficient evidence linking Rios Montt, 86, to the killing of more than 1,700 indigenous people in a counter-insurgency plan carried out under his command.
Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz called the trial "historic." She added: "We cannot leave thousands of deaths unpunished. We must deliver justice to the victims."
Rios Montt remained politically active after being overthrown in August 1983, serving in Guatemala's legislature and launching an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2003. He finally left Congress in 2012.
Rios Montt's legal team have already made a series of appeals, arguing that he did not control battlefield operations and that there was no genocide in Guatemala.
Prosecutors allege Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson against leftist insurgents and targeted indigenous people during a "scorched earth" military offensive that killed at least 1,771 people from the Ixil triangle region of southern Quiché department.
In 1999, a UN-backed truth commission found that during Guatemala's 36-year internal armed conflict (1960-1996) some 200,000 people - over 80 per cent of whom were of Mayan descent - were killed or disappeared, and that genocide had occurred. The UN report found that the army and paramilitary groups were responsible for more than 90 percent of the hundreds of massacres carried out.
"This is the first time, anywhere in the world, that a former head of State is being put on trial for genocide by a national tribunal," United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement.
"Until quite recently, no one believed a trial like this could possibly take place in Guatemala, and the fact that it is happening there ... should give encouragement to victims of human rights violations all over the world," Pillay added.
Guadalupe Marengo, director of human rights group Amnesty International's Americas Program added, “this moment is truly historic because it is the first time that a former head of state in Central America is to be put on trial for crimes under international law.”
“Relatives of victims have been waiting for justice for more than 30 years and it is a testament to their perseverance, along with their lawyers, that a trial which has been blocked by appeals for 11 years is finally taking place," Marengo added.
Prosecutors will present hundreds of testimonies, videos and military documents in the trial. The process could take months.
A three-judge panel will review the material and set a date on whether to sentence or exonerate Rios Montt.
jm/mz (Reuters, AFP)