Genocide trial of former Guatemala dictator kicks off

GUATEMALA CITY (AFP) - Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt went on trial on genocide charges over the killing of almost 1,800 indigenous people during the dark days of his country's civil war.

The trial of the 86-year-old former strongman, who could face five decades in prison, had a raucous opening on Tuesday with the three-judge court rejecting several defence motions for a postponement, and expelling a lawyer representing Rios Montt.

Wearing a dark suit and polka dot tie, Rios Montt sat stone-faced between his two attorneys in a packed Supreme Court room. He requested a bathroom break as the court reviewed several objections lodged by his lawyers.

Some 500 people filled the courtroom, ranging from indigenous women and rights activists looking for justice to former right-wing paramilitary fighters and relatives of soldiers still loyal to Rios Montt's legacy.

The retired general, who insists he was not aware that the army was committing massacres under his watch, is accused of ordering the execution of 1,771 members of the Ixil Maya people in the Quiche region during his 1982-1983 regime.

It is the first genocide trial arising from the 36-year civil war, which pitted leftist guerrillas against government forces and ended in 1996, leaving an estimated 200,000 dead or "disappeared," according to the United Nations.

"In this trial, we will prove that military plans were implemented against the indigenous population ... and that counter-insurgency strategies were ordered," prosecutor Orlando Lopez said in his opening statement.

The defence team was changed three hours before the trial began, with lawyer Danilo Rodriguez, a former guerrilla member, with Francisco Garcia Gudiel, a self-declared "enemy" of Judge Jazmin Barrios.

But the new attorney was thrown out of the courtroom by Judge Barrios for trying to block the proceedings. Mr Garcia branded the decision an "aberration."

The court ordered Rios Montt, who is under house arrest, to appear at every hearing along with retired general Jose Rodriguez, a former member of the military leadership who is on trial with him and is housed in a military hospital.

Rios Montt was known for his "scorched earth" campaign against people the government branded leftist rebels, but who were often indigenous Mayans not involved in the conflict.

The first day of trial lasted five hours, and expert witnesses will testify on the second day on Wednesday. The proceedings are expected to last several months, with 130 witnesses and some 100 experts testifying.

The former president was initially set to stand trial in August, but the date was moved up by five months to March 19.

The trial is seen as a historic step in a country with such high impunity that most crimes go unsolved.

"The prosecution of a general for these heinous crimes 30 years after they happened is testament to the courage and tenacity of victims and humanitarian organisations in Guatemala," said Mr Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch.

Outside the court, rival protests demonstrations were held by rights activists and former paramilitary fighters, who were joined by widows of soldiers.

"We have the right to raise our voices. The guerrillas also killed men," said Mr Adan Ramirez, among a group of former right-wing fighters who held signs reading: "Otto Perez said it: There was no genocide in Guatemala."

Guatemalan President Otto Perez, a retired general who fought the guerrillas and signed the 1996 peace deal, has caused a stir by saying that no genocide was committed during the war.

"There was no genocide in Guatemala because if you read the definition of what genocide means, you will see that this did not happen in Guatemala," he told reporters on Tuesday. But he added that "justice must be applied" in the case.

Rights activists played drums outside the court and insisted that genocide did indeed take place in Guatemala. "Why do they want to deny it?" demanded human rights advocate Sandra Moran.