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 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 that Rios Montt, a general and coup leader, served as the country'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.
International human rights groups, however, had been hoping for such an outcome for decades.
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% 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.
"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 dramatic statement to the court Thursday evening. "I never did it!"
But the judges decided otherwise. "Rios Montt was aware of everything that was happening, and did not stop it, despite having the power to stop it," Barrios stated on the panel's behalf in a packed courtroom, which erupted on numerous occasions in applause.