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Wednesday, 7 March, 2001, 03:15 GMT
Guatemala steps out of military past
Guatemalan Mayan Indians
Mayan Indians suffered greatly under military regimes
By BBC Monitoring's Mike Rose

The Guatemalan Supreme Court's decision to lift the immunity from prosecution of Congress president General Efren Rios Montt could prove a milestone for this Central American country.

Despite the election of a number of civilian presidents over the past few years, the armed forces have retained considerable influence.

If they were no longer the power behind the throne, it was still a brave civilian politician or judge who challenged them or threatened one of their own.

Authoritarian past

This latest move, however, indicates the country could be putting its authoritarian past behind it, and moving towards establishing stable and enduring civilian government.

Despite the fact the supreme court decision covers civil rather than military crimes in this case, and does not allow General Rios Montt to be tried for alleged human rights abuses, the fact that his immunity from prosecution has been lifted at all is significant.

It remains to be seen whether the latest decision will open the way for the general to be put on trial for alleged human rights abuses

When he led the country as president in 1982-83, some of the worst human rights abuses occurred. In one documented incident, 300 people were killed by troops in two villages.

In all, 200,000 people, mostly Mayan Indians, were estimated to have been killed in the 36-year civil war which ended in 1996.

Although deposed in a military coup in 1983, General Rios Montt still wielded considerable influence and founded the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front.


The general remained untouchable despite efforts to have him prosecuted at home and abroad for human rights violations.

After civilians replaced soldiers as Guatemala's leaders, and international pressure mounted, the UN backed the establishment of a human rights commission to examine abuses.

It found the army was responsible for the vast majority of abuses, many of which were carried out under General Rios Montt's reign.

He was also pursued by the Nobel peace prize laureate and Mayan Indian activist Rigoberta Menchu, who late last year started a case against him and two other former military leaders before a court in Spain.

General Efrain Rios Montt
General Rios Montt: Vulnerable to prosecutiont?
Ms Menchu said the deliberate extermination of Mayan Indians was a crime against humanity and could be tried anywhere.

But still the general remained free and at the forefront of political life as parliamentary leader.

It remains to be seen whether the latest decision will open the way for the general to be put on trial for alleged human rights abuses.

This could prove a step too far for the military, which, although it so no longer wields unquestionable power, is still a force to be reckoned with.

As encouraging as the latest moves might be to Guatemala's human rights activists, many would consider that real democracy is still a long way off and will not be achieved until millions of the Mayan Indians are brought in from the poverty and socio-economic wilderness in which they live.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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06 Mar 01 | Americas
Former Guatemala head loses immunity
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