Guatemalan trial of ex-dictator begins

Mar 20, 2013, 6:32 AM EDT
REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — The first witness in the trial of Guatemala's former U.S.-backed dictator testified Tuesday that soldiers razed his village in 1982, killing dozens of his neighbors, tearing the hearts out of victims and setting fire to houses.

Nicolas Brito was the first of at least 150 witnesses expected to give their testimony in the trial of Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, the first Latin American strongman to be tried on genocide charges in his own country.

Brito, an indigenous Ixil who survived the army's attack on the village of Canaque in the town of Santa Maria Nebaja, says he escaped and watched as soldiers attacked his village.

"A lot of women died because they were preparing the dough (for tortillas) when soldiers arrived and they couldn't run," Brito said in Ixil through an interpreter. "The soldiers tore the victims' hearts out and put them on a little table, they piled them there."

He described soldiers knocking down a house and setting it on fire.

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.

Rios Montt's lawyers have said their 86-year-old client is innocent.

"No one ever heard a speech in which he said, 'Kill the Ixils, exterminate the Ixils.' Jose Efrain Rios Montt never gave a written or verbal order to exterminate the Ixils in this country," defense attorney Francisco Garcia Gudiel told the court.

The trial was disrupted when Rios Montt's lawyer was expelled for accusing one of the judges of being hostile to him.

Gudiel was ordered out of the courtroom after saying Judge Jazmin Barrios was biased against him because they had clashed in previous trials. The three-judge panel rejected his argument and ordered him out of the courtroom. They tried to get the lawyer for one of Rios Montt's co-defendants to represent the former strongman. After a brief and loud argument from that lawyer, the panel finally assigned a third defense lawyer to represent Rios Montt.

Rios Montt sat facing a group of victims and their families as the trial opened in a Guatemala City courtroom. His daughter, Zury Rios, sat in the first row, two seats from Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, who was there to support the victims.

"Through this trial the victims can tell you their story, the truth that they've carried for more than 30 years, truth that some officials today want to deny," victims' lawyer Edgar Perez told the judges who will rule on the case.

Moments before the trial began, Rios Montt's legal team quit and was replaced by a new attorney, who filed a series of unsuccessful motions attempting to block the trial on procedural grounds.

Prosecutors acknowledge that there is no smoking gun in the case files, no direct order from Guatemala's then-military dictator to carry out the slaughter of civilians during one of the bloodiest phases of the country's long civil war.

In its absence, prosecutors hope to prove through a detailed recreation of the military chain of command that Rios Montt must have had knowledge of the massacres of Ixil Mayan Indians and others in the Guatemalan highlands. Because he held absolute power over the U.S.-backed military government, his failure to stop the slaughter is proof of his guilt, prosecutors and lawyers for victims say.

Being tried with Rios Montt is Jose Rodriguez Sanchez, 68, a former high-ranking member of the military chiefs of staff.

On Tuesday morning, indigenous activists protested outside the court in support of the victims. Showing support for the accused were former members of government-backed paramilitary groups blamed for many of the killings.