Former Guatemalan president Efrain Rios Montt was on Friday found guilty of genocide and war crimes, in a landmark ruling stemming from massacres of indigenous people in his country’s long civil war.
Rios Montt became the first Latin American ex-dictator convicted of trying to exterminate an entire group of people, in a brief but particularly gruesome stretch of a war that started in 1960, dragged on for 36 years and left about 200,000 people dead or missing.
The 86-year-old was sentenced to 80 years in prison, although he vowed to appeal. He received 50 years for genocide and 30 years for war crimes.
“The defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide,” Judge Jazmin Barrios said. “The corresponding punishment must be imposed.”
She said he was also guilty of war crimes.
The court, filled with victims and their relatives, erupted in applause and cheers.
Other Latin American countries, such as Chile, Brazil and Argentina, were also ruled by cruel military despots in the 1970s and 1980s, and some leaders and officers have been convicted for abuses. However, this was the first time an outright genocide conviction was handed down in the region.
Activists say the verdict was also historic because it marked the first time anywhere in the world that a court has found one of its country’s citizens guilty of genocide — a systematic attempt to eliminate an entire group of people for racial, religious, political or other reasons.
Other genocide convictions, like those stemming from Rwanda’s ethnic violence in 1994, were handed down by international courts.
The aged retired general appeared in court during the trial in a dark suit, with a neatly cropped mustache and gel holding down his thinning gray hair. He wore glasses and headphones to better hear the proceedings, but otherwise appeared to be healthy.
Rios Montt remained stone-faced as the verdict was read. When the judge said his house arrest was being revoked and he would be sent to jail, he nodded.
Later, he told a swarm of journalists that his conscience was clear, as he derided the verdict.
“It is an international political show that is going to hurt the soul of the Guatemalan people, but we are at peace because we never spilled, or stained our hands with, the blood of our brothers,” Rios Montt said.
Rios Montt seized power in 1982 and ruled for 18 months in what is widely considered one of the darkest periods of the country’s agony of civil war between the military and leftist rebels.
Under his rule, the army carried out a scorched earth policy against indigenous peoples, accusing them of backing rebel forces.
In the trial, Rios Montt and his former intelligence chief Jose Rodriguez were accused of ordering the army to carry out 15 massacres that left 1,771 Maya Ixil Indians dead in Quiche in northern Guatemala.
Rodriguez was acquitted.