May 15, 2013
Washington, DC—The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum welcomes the verdict in a Guatemalan court that found former military ruler José Efraín Ríos Montt guilty on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The 86-year-old former general was sentenced to 80 years in prison for planning the destruction of Mayan communities during the fiercest fighting in the country’s long civil war.
Ríos Montt was formally charged with the killing of 1,771 Mayans during one of the bloodiest periods in a civil war between a succession of governments and insurgents that lasted over 36 years, ending in 1996. A United Nations–backed Guatemalan truth commission estimated that more than 200,000 people were killed during the years of fighting, about 83 percent of them Mayans.
“The verdict in the Ríos Montt case is historic because, for the first time, a former head of state has been found guilty of genocide by his own people,” said Michael Chertoff, chairman of the Committee on Conscience, which guides the Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “This verdict sends a strong message to the world that no matter who you are, or how long it takes, perpetrators of genocide will be held accountable for their crimes and brought to justice.”
“Perhaps at long last, through the efforts of countless victims who refused to settle for impunity for the generals, and the courage of the Guatemalan prosecutors who tirelessly pursued this case, the people of Guatemala will feel that some measure of justice has been obtained,” said Mike Abramowitz, director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide.
The key question in the trial was whether Ríos Montt intentionally targeted Mayan communities during his 17-month rule in 1982–83, during a counterinsurgency campaign waged against guerrillas operating in areas of the Ixil region of Guatemala. Judge Yasmin Barrios said in announcing the verdict that the three-judge panel believed Ríos Montt planned and ordered the campaign, knew about the massacres, and did nothing to stop them.
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