The trial of Guatemala's former U.S.-backed dictator will offer the victims of the country's decades-long civil war the chance to tell the truth about the devastating conflict, the lawyer for the victims said Tuesday.
Gen. Efrain Rios Montt sat facing a group of victims and their families as his 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 in support of the victims.
Rios Montt is accused of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the conflict between the right-wing government and leftist guerrillas, a civil war that left some 200,000 people dead.
"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 painstakingly 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.
"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.
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.
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 in support of the victims. Showing support for the accused outside the court were former members of government-backed paramilitary groups blamed for many of the killings.