REPORTING FROM SAN SALVADOR -- Former Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt will appear in a civilian court Thursday to face possible prosecution on genocide charges stemming from the army's "scorched earth" civil war campaign of the 1980s.
"El General," as Rios Montt is known in Guatemala, faces accusations that include torture, genocide, forced disappearances, state terrorism and crimes against humanity. Now 85 years old, Rios Montt has always denied such charges, claiming that he was never in the battlefield during the war.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala has also accused Rios Montt of burning the Spanish Embassy in 1980. Protesters against the army's killings of Mayan Indians were holed up inside the diplomatic post and 31 were killed in the blaze -- including Menchu's father, Vicente.
About 200,000 people were killed or went missing during the 36-year war against small groups of leftist guerrillas. The military razed entire villages, slaughtering civilians. Rios Montt's 17-month rule, from 1982-83, was one of the most brutal periods.
Human rights officials praised the fact that the Guatemalan justice system has finally started to take on such cases, especially given the impunity that top military officials have long enjoyed. Praise has also come for new Atty. Gen. Claudia Paz y Paz, appointed in 2010, who has appeared determined to take on the atrocities of the past.
But the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, warned that the Guatemalan Defense Ministry and some government agencies "lack transparency ... [and demonstrate] unwillingness to provide still-classified information from the military archives that could be relevant for these trials."
Still, WOLA said, forcing Rios Montt to appear in court "is historic, and this trial could bring about justice for those who suffered during his regime."
Until this month, Rios Montt was immune from prosecution because he was a member of the Guatemalan Congress. He lost his immunity Jan. 17, when his term expired. In Thursday's court appearance, a judge will decide if there is enough evidence against him to warrant a trial.
A trial of Rios Montt could also prove uncomfortable for new President Otto Perez Molina, himself a former military man who served under Rios Montt.
In a ground-breaking case last August, four members of the Guatemalan Special Forces, known as the Kaibiles, were sentenced to 6,000 years in prison for their role in the 1982 "Dos Erres Massacre" of more than 200 people. The verdict paved the way for other high-level military officials, like Rios Montt, to be tried for alleged involvement in genocide.
"We do not want revenge," Eduardo de Leon Barrios, director of the Menchu Foundation, told The Times. "What we want is to set a precedent so that genocidal massacres never happen again."
In a 1995 interview with The Times, when he ran unsuccessfully for president, Rios Montt acknowledged that he was "the one responsible" for much of what happened in those dark years "but not the guilty party."
"I do not justify anything," he said. "I found a government that was destroyed, a state that was destroyed, a state that had been looted, a state without law. I put it in order."
-- Alex Renderos
Photo: Retired army Gen. Efrain Rios Montt arrives at the Guatemala City Human Rights office in December. Credit: Saul Martinez / EPA