Skip to main content

Rios Montt rejects genocide charges as history-making trial nears end

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 6:33 AM EDT, Fri May 10, 2013
Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt listens to a judge in Guatemala City on April 19.
Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt listens to a judge in Guatemala City on April 19.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala addresses the court for the first time Thursday
  • He is accused of genocide and crimes against humanity
  • Rios Montt denies he ordered atrocities against indigenous villages
  • It is the first time a former head of state has been tried for genocide in his own country

(CNN) -- Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt waited until closing arguments to speak in his own defense in his genocide trial in Guatemala City on Thursday.

He denied he had any role as head of state in the atrocities the military carried out on indigenous Ixil Mayans during his brief rule from 1982 to 1983.

"I never authorized, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered these attacks against a people, ethnicity or religion," Rios Montt said Thursday.

Prosecutors have asked for 75-year sentences for the 86-year-old former leader and his intelligence chief, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez.

Film footage helps case against dictator

The landmark trial marks the first time a former head of state has been tried for genocide by his country's own judicial system.

Guatemala confronts a dark chapter

While Rios Montt was in power, the military used the threat of leftist rebels as a guise to exterminate Ixil villages accused of harboring insurgents, prosecutors argued. According to prosecutors, the campaign led to the genocide of more than 1,700 Ixil Mayans.

During his first and only address to the three-judge panel, Rios Montt said that the prosecution's contention that the chain of command places him at fault for the atrocities is false.

He oversaw the day-to-day operations of the government, while the defense ministry had the final say over security matters, Rios Montt said.

"The head of state is nothing more than a public servant," he said. "Each regional commander is responsible for what happens and what he lets happen in his territory."

"I was not a commander; I was a head of state!"
Efrain Rios Montt

The former ruler said he does not accept the charges of genocide and crimes against humanity leveled against him.

"I was not a commander; I was a head of state!" he shouted.

Trial near completion

Closing arguments in the trial, which opened in March, are expected to conclude on Thursday. A verdict could come any moment after that.

The first three weeks of the trial moved fast, with many Ixil Mayan witnesses testifying about rape, torture, killings and the razing of their villages.

But a number of appeals and motions by the defense in several courts threatened to derail the process. At one point, a judge annulled the testimony in the trial.

Legal wrangling over the insertion and ejection of lawyers on the defense side and whether certain evidence was admissible resulted in sometimes contradicting rulings from various courts.

The trial was suspended at one point, as the country's Constitutional Court and an appeals court began untangling the mess.

The genocide trial was effectively stalled for nearly three weeks before the judges ruled they were in compliance with all of the rulings from the other courts.

Facing legacy of civil war

Rios Montt 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.

His defense has argued that he never explicitly ordered the killings of the indigenous group.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:10 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
In South Korea, volunteer divers are risking their lives to rescue victims of the sunken ferry.
updated 9:01 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Park Jee Young, 22, helped passengers escape as the Sewol ferry sank -- giving out life jackets while refusing to wear one herself.
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
What did outgoing manager David Moyes get wrong in his six months with English Premier League football team Manchester United?
updated 5:25 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
In honor of Shakespeare's birthday, here are 15 of the world's most amazing theaters.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
CNN exclusive: Australian officials are hammering out a new agreement for widening the Flight 370 search area.
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Malaysian officials sent to brief Chinese families are armed with little to no information.
updated 11:45 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
When a team of Indian surgeons opened up the stomach of a 63-year-old man, they had no idea they'd extract a fortune.
updated 3:01 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Do these photos CNN of gun-toting men wearing green uniforms prove Russian forces are in eastern Ukraine?
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
If the Duchess wears it, then your fashion career is sorted for life.
updated 9:30 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Tucked away near the border with Cameroon, this poor corner of Nigeria is no stranger to such brazen, violent acts.
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
An infant mountain Gorilla sits in the dense jungle canopy on the edge of Uganda's Bwindi National Park in this 29, January 2007 photo. Bwindi, or the 'Impenetrable Forest' as it is known to many tourists is home to the majority of Uganda's rare and endangered mountain gorilla population where plans are underway to habituate two more gorilla family groups to counter growing demand from a flourishing gorilla trek tourism business, a major source of income for the Uganda tourism Authority. AFP PHOTO / STUART PRICE. (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)
Tthe constant threat of poaching, deforestation and human diseases means the world's mountain gorillas could be completely wiped out.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Prince George takes a special interest in an Australian animal on a zoo trip.
updated 10:02 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
How could a teenage stowaway survive hours in a jet's sub-zero wheel well at 38,000 feet?
updated 12:28 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Browse through images you don't always see on news reports from CNN teams around the world.
updated 6:58 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
See what life is like for superyacht stewardesses-in-training. One thing's for certain -- they can never say "no."
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Home of Bruce Lee, divine dim sum, lofty buildings, loftier real estate prices and easy access to the great outdoors.
ADVERTISEMENT