Historic verdict in Guatemala

He was sentenced by a judge who laid out in horrific detail how under his leadership the army had massacred, mu...

He was sentenced by a judge who laid out in horrific detail how under his leadership the army had massacred, mutilated, raped, bombed and persecuted members of the Ixil Mayan community, including many children and elderly, during counter-insurgency operations 30 years ago. General R__os Montt, she said, _knew everything that was going on, and he didn_t stop it, even though he had the power to do so._

Amid cheers from the gallery and chaos in the courtroom, the judge, Jazm__n Barrios, part of a three-person tribunal, immediately ordered General R__os Montt to be taken to jail. Until then, he had been under house arrest. His conviction came a day after he broke a silence that he had maintained throughout weeks of testimony. He had hotly declared his innocence, showing particular antipathy to the charge of genocide, saying he had never authorised attacks on any ethnic group,

However, in reaching her verdict, the judge pointed to evidence of a pattern of army massacres that she said appeared to follow plans that were ordered from the top. In proving genocide, she said there was evidence that 5.5% of the Ixil ethnic group had been wiped out by the army, even though she said they were civilian farmers. And she said General R__os Montt, knew what was going on in the villages where the massacres and bombardments were taking place, and didn_t order a halt to them. However, she acquitted his co-defendant, the general_s former intelligence chief, Jos__ Rodr__guez S__nchez.

In her remarks the judge dwelt on the brutality that led to the killing of 1,771 Ixils, relayed by almost 100 witnesses during the trial that started on March 19th. She spoke of babies being killed in the womb, of gang rapes by soldiers, and of mass graves showing evidence of violent death. She praised the Ixil witnesses for speaking out about their suffering, noting that the psychological scars still persisted, even among generations who were not alive when the atrocities were committed.

Human-rights groups expect that the verdict will enable many Ixil people to feel that justice has been done. However, it may also stir up old wounds in a society that is still struggling with the legacy of a civil war in which 200,000 people died during 36 years of fighting that ended in 1996.

As the trial reached its closing stages last month, prominent public figures, including President Otto P__rez, who was an army officer during the General R__os Montt dictatorship from 1982-83, spoke out against the genocide charge. Some expressed concern that a conviction would effectively mean that the Guatemalan state had been found guilty of genocide, which could lead other Mayan communities who suffered during the war to bring their grievances to court. They worried that it could split an ethnically divided country. Also, they said that the stigma of being bracketed with countries like Rwanda and Nazi Germany is bound to hurt the pride of Guatemalan conservatives.

Nevertheless, analysts said General R__os Montt_s defence lawyers at times verged on an absurd obsession with technicalities, which seemed aimed more at avoiding a verdict, rather than proving his innocence. At one stage last month, it looked like they had achieved an annulment of the trial. But Ms Barrios proved to be a more determined judge than they had bargained for. Her verdict, as well as providing a sense of justice to victims of General R__os Montt_s dictatorship, shows a remarkably brave streak in a country where impunity for the strong against the weak has existed since colonial times.

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