GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — 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 Gen. 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 court room erupted in cheers. Some women who lost relatives in the massacres wept.
A three-judge tribunal issued the verdict after the nearly two-month trial in which dozens of victims testified about horrific atrocities. A co-defendant was aquitted.
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.
Rios Montt had said he never knew of or ordered the massacres while in power.
The war between the government and leftist rebels cost more than 200,000 lives and ended in peace accords in 1996.
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.
Matthew Kennis, Amnesty International's chair for Central America-Mexico Coordination Group, said "This is an incredibly important step forward for justice and accountability in Guatemala. Rios Montt being found guilty ... is a significant step forward for justice and accountability."
Dozens of victims testified of atrocities. A former soldier directly accused President Perez Molina of ordering pillaging and executions while serving in the military during the Rios Montt regime. Perez Molina called the testimony "lies."
Ixil Indian Benjamin Geronimo, president of the Justice and Reconciliation Association, told the tribunal during closing arguments Thursday that he survived massacres and killings that claimed the lives of 256 members of his community.
"I saw it with my own eyes, I'm not going to lie. Children, pregnant women and the elderly were killed," said Geronimo, who spoke on behalf of the victims.
Rios Montt testified for the first time at his trial Thursday.
"I declare myself innocent," Rios Montt told the three-judge tribunal as many in the audience applauded. "It was never my intention or my goal to destroy a whole ethnic group."
Rios Montt seized power in a March 23, 1982, coup, and ruled until he himself was overthrown just over a year later. Prosecutors say that while in power he was aware of, and thus responsible for, the slaughter by subordinates of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayas in San Juan Cotzal, San Gaspar Chajul and Santa Maria Nebaj, towns in the Quiche department of Guatemala's western highlands.
Those military offensives were part of a brutal, decades-long counterinsurgency against a leftist uprising that brought massacres in the Mayan heartland where the guerrillas were based.
A U.N. truth commission said state forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93 percent of the killings and human rights violations that it documented, committed mostly against indigenous Maya. Yet until now, only low or middle-level officials have been prosecuted for a war that ended in 1996.
Rios Montt is the biggest by far, on trial along with 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. Rodriguez Sanchez's lawyer denied the charges against him.
Prosecutors and advocates for victims built their case on thousands of green folders stuffed with military documents, victims' testimony and ballistic and forensic examinations of more than 800 sets of human remains, mostly women or children.
The court was packed with representatives of indigenous, human rights and student groups as well as former soldiers and family members of victims.
Military experts testifying for the victims have said this description of the chain of command makes it obvious that the military chief of staff and other high commanders including Rios Montt could have halted the massacres.
The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation carried out more than 60 studies to identify some 800 sets of human remains from the area that was evidence in the trial, the great majority of victims were women or children who suffered violent deaths.
Mayas were treated as an internal enemy because they were seen as lending support to the enemy, according to the indictment against Rios Montt.
Associated Press Writer Olga R. Rodriguez contributed to this report