Former military leader of Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, 86, has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. The court sentenced him to 80 years in jail.
When Montt was in power 1,771 Ixil people in the towns of San Juan Cotzal, San Gaspar Chajul and Santa Maria Nebaj, in Guatemala's western highlands were massacred. The court heard reports of the slaughter of pregnant women, children and the vulnerable.
Montt ruled Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983 but the civil war lasted 36 years in total. As the country's leader he is deemed responsible for war crimes and more during his time.
During the 36-year conflict an estimated 200,000 people were killed and another 45,000 "disappeared."
The trial lasted almost two months and the court heard details of horrific crimes, for which Montt is held responsible. Montt showed no emotion as the judge read out the verdict and told him that he would be moved immediately from house-arrest to a prison. He can appeal the verdict.
Reading out the verdict Judge Jazmin Barrios said "The defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide. The corresponding punishment must be imposed."
The Guardian reports:
Elena de Paz Santiago, who was 12 when she and her mother fled a massacre in their village in 1982 said "What I want is for Ríos to feel the pain we felt." They hid in the mountains and survived by eating roots and wild plants for months, before being caught and taken to an army outpost to cook and clean for the soldiers. Her mother died while they were both being gang-raped and was later buried in a mass grave.
"He [Rios Montt] will go to jail but he will have food. We nearly starved hiding out in the mountains," she said in an interview outside the courtroom.
The case Montt’s war crimes trial raises many issues, some which are relevant to the current crisis in Syria.
Montt, and his supporters, maintained that he was defending his country during a bloody civil war. A war in which he was supported by the US. While in office, Montt received both direct and indirect support from the CIA. The rebels in Guatemala were left-wing, the country was relatively close to the US and once again America chose its side based on stopping the spread of communism.
Speaking to journalists following the sentence, Al-Jazeera reports he said:
"It is an international political show that is going to hurt the soul of the Guatemalan people, but we are at peace because we never spilled, or stained our hands with, the blood of our brothers. "I am not upset because I abided by the law," he said, insisting he did the right thing for his country by fighting the "national problem" of rebels.
Rios Montt has always denied knowledge of the slaughter but the court did not believe that was the case. Relatives of victims plus victims of brutality filled the court with applause and cheers as sentence was announced.
Montt fought the rebels with a "guns and beans" campaign. Those who stood with the military were fed but those that did not were threatened with death.
US President Ronald Reagan supported Montt throughout this time even taking a visit to Guatemala City in December 1982. According to Wikipedia Reagan declared: "President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. ... I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.
Civil war is always complicated but a civil war should be just that. Sometimes conflict spills out and becomes more widespread but the interference of other countries should not be applauded. In this case it seems that, whether with the best of intentions or not, the US was involved in the slaughter of many people and must also bear some responsibility.
In Syria's civil war, western nations such as the UK and the US are once again flexing their muscles; this time however they are backing an unknown collection of rebels.
The next time the west tries to justify further intervention in Syria on the grounds of a humanitarian effort, remember the Guatemalan civil war.
Guatemala, former head of state to face genocide charges
Eileen Kersey manages TEK Staff Blog
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