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Guatemala begins first genocide trial

By Miguel Salay and Mariano Castillo, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt goes on trial
  • Rios Montt ruled Guatemala from 1982 to 1983
  • He is accused of ordering the massacres of indigenous Mayans
  • His lawyers have said prosecutors have no evidence to prove this

Guatemala City (CNN) -- The first genocide trial in Guatemala's history got under way Tuesday, with former dictator Efrain Rios Montt facing accusations that he authorized numerous massacres of indigenous Mayan communities in the early 1980s.

Rios Montt had stalled proceedings against him for years by filing numerous appeals, and on Tuesday added another twist by replacing his two attorneys.

A three-judge panel from the Supreme Court's First High-Risk Tribunal is hearing the case in Guatemala City. Standing trial alongside the former leader is Mauricio Sanchez, who was head of intelligence in the early 1980s.

The pair are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. Prosecutors accuse them of ordering 15 massacres between 1982 and 1983 in the northwestern region of Quiche. More than 1,700 indigenous Mayans were killed in those operations, prosecutors say.

"Just from my family I lost 14 members," Benjamin Manuel Jeronimo said.

Victims' families view the trial with mixed emotions.

"There are those who are reminded of everything (that happened,) and so they feel sad. And on the other hand, there is happiness that this will finally go to trial," said Edwin Calil Vicente.

Rios Montt ruled Guatemala from 1982 to 1983.

He came to power in a coup and led a military junta while Guatemala was in a bloody civil war between the army and leftist guerrillas. The war did not end until 1996, leaving more than 200,000 people dead and 1 million as refugees.

Prosecutors argued that Rios Montt was aware of the repressive strategies that the military was using against anyone suspected of being a guerrilla, such as killings, forced disappearances and kidnappings.

The human rights abuse and genocide allegations against him come from his "scorched earth" campaign to root out insurgents in provinces heavily populated by indigenous populations.

Rios Montt has unsuccessfully argued in different courts that a 1996 amnesty law spares him from prosecution.

A year ago, a judge argued that the country's 1996 National Reconciliation Law, which coincided with the end of the country's civil war, does not guarantee amnesty for those accused of human rights abuses.

Secondly, the judge said, Guatemala is party to international treaties that obligate it to prosecute crimes of genocide.

Rios Montt's recently dismissed defense has argued that prosecutors have no evidence of the former dictator ordering such massacres.

The trial "has to help society discuss what happened so that we can learn what happened and not repeat those terrible acts," said Francisco Soto, executive director of the Center for Human Rights Legal Action in Guatemala, a group that is participating in the trial in a support role for the prosecution.

Journalist Miguel Salay reported from Guatemala. CNN's Mariano Castillo reported from Atlanta.

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