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 2:43 PM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Three Americans detained in North Korea spoke out about their conditions and pleaded for U.S. help in interviews with CNN.
Hundreds of jihadis in Syria are from abroad -- which countries have the biggest problem?
updated 5:13 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Libyan militia members have apparently turned the abandoned U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, into a water park.
updated 9:16 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Obama's remarks that he didn't yet have a strategy for ISIS in Syria is widely criticized.
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
A few miles south of the town of Starobeshevo in eastern Ukraine, a group of men in uniform is slumped under a tree.
updated 8:08 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Beijing says only candidates approved by a nominating committee can run for Hong Kong's chief executive, prompting criticism.
updated 4:23 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
He should be toddling around a playground. Instead, his tiny hands grip an AK-47.
updated 8:23 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wilson Raj Perumal tells CNN how he rigged World Cup games: "I was giving orders to the coach."
updated 5:46 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
We asked you what you would like to know about Ebola. Experts answer some of your most common questions and concerns.
updated 9:25 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
In a major breach of privacy, a hacker leaked a series of pictures allegedly showing Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities in the nude.
Instead of weaving garments sold in the West, children should be in school
According to the International Labour Organization, there are 168 million child laborers around the world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT