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Thursday, 4 May, 2000, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Guatemala Indians sue for 'genocide'

Mayan peasants campaigning in Guatemala City
By Mike Lanchin in Central America

A group of Mayan Indians in Guatemala are suing one of the country's former military leaders and two of his senior officials, accusing them of genocide.

The legal action, unprecedented in Guatemala, accuses former President General Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, his brother - a former army commander - and a former defence minister of ordering 10 massacres in Indian villages in 1981 and 1982.



Nobel Peace prizewinner Rigoberta Menchu

The case comes only a few months after Nobel Peace prizewinner Rigoberta Menchu opened similar proceedings against General Lucas and other officers in a Spanish court.

Dozens of poor Mayan peasants, many of them in their highly-coloured traditional dress, packed into the offices of the attorney-general in Guatemala City to present their case.

Supported by local human rights groups and officials from Amnesty International, the Mayans are trying to break new ground on notoriously unfavourable legal turf.

They are basing their case on hundreds of testimonies of the excesses carried out by the army during the early 1980s, considered by human rights groups as the worst years of abuses of the 36-year civil war.

Amnesty law

A truth commission set up after the war ended said that more than 200,000 civilians were killed during the conflict.

Some 400 Mayan villages were also razed by the army as the military tried to wipe out support among the Indians for the left-wing rebels.

These cases have never been investigated by the courts, and amnesty laws protect army officers from prosecution.

In an attempt to sidestep the legal obstacles, the survivors suing General Lucas and his aides are accusing them of genocide, a crime not covered under the amnesty laws.

But observers give them little chance of succeeding against the former dictactor now living in Venezuela, given the continuing fear among Guatemala's judges to challenge the military for its past deeds.

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