GUATEMALA CITY - A former U.S.-backed dictator who presided over one of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala's civil war will stand trial on charges he ordered the murder, torture and displacement of thousands of Mayan Indians, a judge ruled Monday.
Human rights advocates have said that the prosecution of Jose Efrain Rios Montt would be an important symbolic victory for the victims of one of the most horrific of the conflicts that devastated Central America during the last decades of the Cold War.
He is the first former president to be charged with genocide by a Latin American court.
"It's the beginning of a new phase of this struggle," said Paul Seils, vice-president of the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice, which has worked extensively on war-crimes cases in Guatemala. He said the decision was "a good step forward" but he expected the prosecution of Rios Mont to encounter stiff resistance from forces in Guatemala opposed to the punishment of government-allied forces for their actions during the civil war.
Others hailed the judge's ruling as a less-qualified victory for justice in Guatemala.
"The fact that a judge has ordered the trial of a former head of state is a remarkable development in a country where impunity for past atrocities has long been the norm," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
Guatemala's leaders have been criticized for years for their inability or unwillingness to prosecute government forces and allied paramilitaries accused of marching into Mayan villages, carrying out rapes and torture, and slaughtering women, children and unarmed men in a "scorched earth" campaign aimed at eliminating the support for a left-wing guerrilla movement.
Despite a series of international inquiries finding him responsible for war crimes, Rios Montt served as a Guatemalan congressman for 15 years until he lost a re-election race late last year. He had held immunity from prosecution while a member of Congress and was put under house arrest after losing his post.
One of the highest priorities of the president who won last year's election, Otto Perez Molina, has been campaigning for the elimination of a U.S. ban on military aid to Guatemala, which is locked in a fight against heavily armed drug cartels that have taken over swathes of the country.
Among the conditions set by the U.S. Congress for restoring the aid is reforming Guatemala's justice system and putting an end to impunity.
The decision to try Rios Montt could stand as a precedent in the cases of dozens of other lower-ranking military men accused of participating in atrocities, victims' advocates have said.
Judge Miguel Angel Galvez ruled that Rios Montt could be tried on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for the killing of 1,771 indigenous Ixiles in 1982 and 1983, when he was president.
The decision clears the way for a three-judge panel to hear the evidence against Rios Montt and decide to either judge him guilty and sentence him, exonerate him of the charge or start a public trial.
Prosecutors allege that after leading a March 1982 coup and seizing control of the government, Rios Montt oversaw torture, rape, forced disappearances and forced relocations and killings of thousands of Ixil people by soldiers, paramilitaries and other government officials.
His lawyers have sought to block the trial, arguing that he is protected by an amnesty law.
The attorney-general's office said that it found evidence of 5,271 killings of Ixil residents of the towns of San Juan Cotzal, Santa Maria Nebai and San Gaspar Chajul in the department of Quiche. Prosecutors said 1,771 died in some 15 massacres between 1982 and 1983, and 370 bodies have been identified.
Prosecutor Orlando Lopez said during hearings before Monday's decision that Rios Montt wanted to wipe out the Ixil people, considered a bastion of support for guerrilla fighters waging a civil war against the Guatemalan state.
"During the period in which you held office, it is believed that the actions carried by members of the Guatemalan Army, military official and civil defence patrolmen resulted in the deaths of 1,771 people," the complaint against Rios Montt reads.
The prosecution case includes forensic reports documenting hundreds of deaths.
Among the testimony presented to the judge was that of Ana Lopez, an Ixil woman taken from her home by soldiers in May, 1982 to a government outpost where she was tortured and raped for 10 days.
During the 1960-96 civil war, more than 200,000 people, mostly Mayan Indians, were killed or went missing and entire villages were exterminated, according to the United Nations.