Ex-Dictator Convicted of Genocide in Guatemala

, The Associated Press

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A Guatemalan court convicted former dictator Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity on Friday, sentencing him to 80 years in prison, the first such sentence ever handed down against a former Latin American leader.

It was the state's first official acknowledgment that genocide occurred during the bloody, 36-year civil war, something the current president, retired General Otto Perez Molina, has denied.

"He knew about everything that was going on and he did not stop it, despite having the power to stop it from being carried out," said Presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios. "Rios Montt is guilty of genocide."

The 86-year-old former general laughed, talked to his lawyers and listened to the procedures through headphones. When the guilty verdict was announced, the crowded courtroom erupted in cheers. Some women who lost relatives in the massacres wept.

"Judge, Judge! Restore order!" Rios Montt shouted as cameramen and photographers swarmed him after the verdict was announced.

A three-judge tribunal issued the verdict after the nearly two-month trial in which dozens of victims testified about mass rapes and the killings of women and children and other atrocities.

The proceedings suffered ups and downs as the trial was suspended for 12 days amid appeals and at times appeared headed for annulment.

Survivors and relatives of victims have sought for 30 years to bring punishment for Rios Montt. For international observers and Guatemalans on both sides of the war, the trial could be a turning point in a nation still wrestling with the trauma of a conflict that killed some 200,000 people.

"Rios Montt being found guilty ... is a significant step forward for justice and accountability in Guatemala," said Matthew Kennis, Amnesty International's chair for Central America-Mexico Coordination Group.

Prosecutors said Rios Montt must have had knowledge of the massacres of Mayan Indians when he ruled Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983 at the height of the country's 36-year civil war. The three-judge panel essentially concluded that the massacres followed the same pattern, showing they had been planned, something that would not be possible without the approval of the military command, which Rios Montt headed.

Rios Montt had said he never knew of or ordered the massacres while in power. A co-defendant, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, a 68-year-old former general who was a high-ranking member of the military chiefs of staff during Rios Montt's administration, was acquitted.

The 80-year sentence was somewhat symbolic, given Rios Montt's age and the fact that Guatemala's maximum sentence is 50 years. His lawyers vowed to appeal the ruling.

"This is an unjust verdict. We already knew they were going to convict him, the general (Rios Montt) even came with his suitcase packed," said defense lawyer Francisco Palomo.

Indians from ethnic Mayan groups broke into song after the verdict, singing "We only want to be human beings ... to live life, not die it."

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