Guatemala opens genocide trial against ex-dictator

A genocide trial started Tuesday against former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who is accused of presiding over one of the bloodiest chapters of his country's brutal civil war.

Judge Jazmin Barrios opened the proceedings after rejecting attempts by the defense team to postpone the trial against the 86-year-old former strongman, who could face some 50 years in prison.

Wearing a dark suit and polka dot tie, Rios Montt sat stone-faced between his two attorneys. He requested a bathroom break as the court reviewed several objections lodged by his lawyers.

Rios Montt is accused of ordering the execution of 1,771 members of the indigenous Ixil Maya people in the Quiche region during his 1982-1983 regime.

The trial marks the first time genocide proceedings have been brought in relation to the 36-year civil war in Guatemala that ended in 1996, leaving an estimated 200,000 people dead, according to United Nations estimates.

"In this trial, we will prove that military plans were implemented against the indigenous population ... and that counter-insurgency strategies were ordered," prosecutor Orlando Lopez said in his opening statement.

Rios Montt was known for his "scorched earth" campaign against people the government claimed were leftist rebels but were often in fact members of indigenous Maya communities who were not involved in the conflict.

The trial is expected to last several months, with 130 witnesses and some 100 experts testifying.

Retired general Jose Rodriguez, a former member of the military leadership, is to stand trial along with Rios Montt.

The former president -- who insists he was not aware that the army was committing massacres during his administration -- was initially set to stand trial in August but the date was moved up by five months to March 19.

The trial is seen as a historic step in a country with such high impunity that most crimes go unsolved.

"The prosecution of a general for these heinous crimes 30 years after they happened is testament to the courage and tenacity of victims and humanitarian organizations in Guatemala," said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch.

Ahead of the trial, Guatemalan President Otto Perez, a retired general who was also accused of human rights violations, caused a stir by saying that no genocide was committed during the war.

"I hold the view that there was no genocide in Guatemala ... there was no policy or document or order to slaughter or kill people," he said last week.