US sees Guatemala genocide verdict as reconciliation chance

The United States sees Guatemala's genocide conviction of ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt as a chance for the Central American nation to move toward reconciliation, a US official said Saturday.

"We note the decision of the Guatemalan court and reaffirm the importance of a strong and transparent justice system as an essential component of democracy," a State Department spokesperson told AFP by email.

"We see an opportunity for progress toward a true reconciliation in Guatemala, an essential step for the Guatemalan people to continue moving forward as everyone hopes," added the spokesperson, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Rios Montt, 86, was found guilty of genocide and war crimes Friday in a landmark ruling stemming from massacres of indigenous people in his country's long civil war.

Rios Montt thus became the first Latin American ex-dictator convicted of trying to exterminate an entire group of people. He maintains his innocence and has said he will lodge an appeal.

"At this time, it is important to remember that Guatemala, as a country, was not on trial," the US spokesperson added.

Activists say the verdict was also historic because it marked the first time anywhere in the world that a court has found one of its country's citizens guilty of genocide -- a systematic attempt to eliminate an entire group of people for racial, religious, political or other reasons.

"The conviction of Rios Montt sends a powerful message to Guatemala and the world that nobody, not even a former head of state, is above the law when it comes to committing genocide," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas chief at Human Rights Watch.