Guatemala: Former Dictator Efrain Rios Montt Faces New Genocide Charges For Civil War Atrocities

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Efrain Rios Montt
Efrain Rios Montt, former dictator of Guatemala, now faces a new charge of genocide for his role in a brutal massacre during the nation's 36-year civil war.

Efrain Rios Montt, former dictator of Guatemala, faces a new charge of genocide for the massacres perpetrated under his leadership during the most brutal period of the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War.

He is currently under house arrest pending another trial for similar charges, which were levied in January.

Judge Patricia Flores ruled that there was sufficient evidence to try Rios Montt for an additional charge of genocide on Monday, according to the BBC. The prosecution alleges that the former army chief was responsible for a brutal massacre at Las Dos Erres, where security forces were sent to search for weapons in December 1982. The soldiers ruthlessly killed hundreds of men, women and children, and threw several bodies into a nearby well.

Five of those soldiers, who were part of an elite military force called the Kaibiles, have been tried and sentenced to prison in recent months.

The defense claimed Rios Montt's innocence since he was not physically present during the massacre, but Flores argued that the soldiers were under his command.

Upon hearing Flores' decision, the audience in the packed courtroom broke into applause. After years of conflict, Rios Montt's initial indictment marked the first time that a former Guatemalan army commander has been charged with genocide.

Guatemala's long and bloody civil war lasted from 1960 to 1996. Government forces fought against leftist insurgents, mostly from the indigenous Mayan community that makes up half the country's population. The Mayans have long endured stark inequities in Guatemala; their villages were plagued by poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and crime.

During the war, over 200,000 people were killed. Most were Mayan civilians, and the United Nations found that 93 percent of the atrocities committed during the conflict were perpetrated by government forces. 

Rios Montt first seized power during a coup in March of 1982, shortly after which he became Guatemala's sole head of state, minister of defense and military chief. While he was in office, Rios Montt's campaign against leftist insurgents was strengthened by support from the United States government.

Rios Montt left his command post in 1983, but stayed on in politics as the head of the Guatemalan Republican Front. After years in congress and two failed attempts to run for president, his final term in office ended in January of 2012.

Rios Montt's immunity from prosecution expired as soon as he stepped down. Less than two weeks later, he was indicted in court for genocide and crimes against humanity. After his first hearing on Jan. 26, he was released on bail and placed under house arrest, where he remains.

Facing additional charges after Monday's hearing , Rios Montt gave only a brief statement in his defense. It is under military law, your honor, that I declare that I am innocent, he said.

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