Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, 86, is surrounded by microphones… (Johan Ordonez / AFP/Getty…)
MEXICO CITY — Efrain Rios Montt, the former Guatemalan military dictator who ruled his country during one of the bloodiest phases of its civil war, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity Friday for the systematic massacre of more than 1,700 Maya people. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
The landmark ruling by a panel of three Guatemalan judges came after a dramatic trial that featured testimony from dozens of ethnic Ixil Maya, who described atrocities committed by the army and security forces who sought to clean the countryside of Marxist guerrillas and their sympathizers during the 1982-83 period that Rios Montt, an army general and coup leader, served as the country's de facto leader.
Human rights advocates for years had been hoping for such a ruling.
A report by the country's truth and reconciliation commission listed widespread human rights abuses during the civil war, which lasted from 1961 to 1996 and claimed more than 200,000 lives. The commission found that 93% of the rights violations were committed by the government or its paramilitary allies. But few leaders from the time have been brought to justice.
On Friday evening, Reed Brody, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, called the decision a "historic verdict in a country where the rich and powerful have always been above the law, and impunity for atrocities has been the norm."
But the nation's highest-profile criminal trial in recent history was also derided from the start by Guatemalan conservatives, many of whom consider Rios Montt a heroic bulwark against communism.
Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, a Guatemalan businessman, is among those who have accused Guatemala's top prosecutor, Claudia Paz y Paz, of harboring sympathy for the guerrillas. In an interview Friday, Mendez portrayed the entire case as an act of left-wing vengeance.
"The communists tried to take executive power by violence and they failed," said Mendez, whose father served as interior minister under Rios Montt. "They tried to take legislative power by the ballot box and they failed. But they did take judicial power."
During the trial, which began March 19, Guatemalan prosecutors accused Rios Montt of responsibility for the massacre of more than 1,700 Ixil Maya, as well as systematic rapes, torture and the burning of villages.
Rios Montt and his attorneys had argued that as the country's political leader he should not be held responsible for military matters that occurred in a rural province far from the capital.
"I never authorized, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered that a race, ethnicity or religion be attacked," the 86-year-old Rios Montt said in a statement to the court Thursday.
But the judges found that responsibility eventually rested with the dictator.
"Rios Montt was aware of everything that was happening and did not stop it, despite having the power to stop it," Judge Yassmin Barrios said in the packed Guatemala City courtroom.
The trial could have ramifications for the current president, Otto Perez Molina, a former army officer who commanded troops in the Ixil area during Rios Montt's rule. Last month, a witness named Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes, a former soldier, told the court that Perez had ordered the burning of villages and the execution of fleeing residents.
Perez denies the accusations. He enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution for the rest of his presidential term, which ends in 2016.
Rios Montt's intelligence chief, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, also faced charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was acquitted Friday.
Rios Montt was ordered sent directly to prison. After the verdict was read, he told reporters: "Don't worry. I'm going to prison. I'm sorry for my family, but I'm not worried because I followed the law. Today there was a deficiency of justice."
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.