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 and displacement of ethnic Mayan people. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
The landmark ruling by a three-judge panel headed by Judge Yassmin Barrios came after a dramatic trial that featured testimony from dozens of Maya who described atrocities committed by the Guatemalan army and security forces as they sought to clean the countryside of Marxist guerrillas and sympathizers during the 1982-83 period when Rios Montt, 86, a general and coup leader, served as the nation's de facto leader.
The ruling is likely to be derided by Guatemalan conservatives, many of whom see Rios Montt as a hero who prevented the country from being overtaken by communist rebels, who had been attempting to foment revolution in the poverty-stricken countryside for decades. But international human rights groups, also for decades, had been hoping for just such an outcome.
A 1999 report by the country's truth and reconciliation commission listed widespread human rights abuses during the civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996 and claimed more than 200,000 lives. The panel found that 93 percent of the rights violations were committed by the government or its paramilitary allies.
Guatemalan prosecutors accused Rios Montt of responsibility for the massacre of more than 1,700 Ixil Maya, as well as systematic rapes, tortures 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 a few hours northwest of the Guatemalan capital.