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Genocide trial of former Guatemala dictator begins

General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, 86, arrives in court for the trial in Guatemala City on March 19, 2013
Former Guatemalan de facto President (1982-1983), retired General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, 86, arrives in court for the trial on charges of genocide during his de facto 1982-83 regime, in Guatemala City on March 19, 2013.

Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt went on trial Tuesday on genocide charges over the killing of almost 1,800 indigenous people during the dark days of his country's civil war.

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

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

Some 500 people filled the courtroom, ranging from indigenous women and rights activists appalled to former right-wing paramilitary fighters and relatives of soldiers still loyal to Rios Montt's legacy.

The retired general is accused of ordering the execution of 1,771 members of the Ixil Maya people in the Quiche region during his 1982-1983 regime.

It is the first genocide trial arising from the 36-year civil war, which that pitted leftist guerrillas against government forces and ended in 1996, leaving an estimated 200,000 dead, according to the United Nations.

"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.

Judge Jasmin Barrios  is seen during the trial in Guatemala City on March 19, 2013
Judge Jasmin Barrios is seen during the opening trial of Former Guatemalan de facto President (1982-1983), retired General Jose Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide during his de facto 1982-83 regime, in Guatemala City on March 19, 2013.

Rios Montt was known for his "scorched earth" campaign against people the government branded leftist rebels but who 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.

Outside the court, rights activists and former paramilitary fighters, joined by widows of soldiers, held rival protests.

"We have the right to raise our voices. The guerrillas also killed men," said Adan Ramirez, among a group of former right-wing fighters who held signs reading: "Otto Perez said it: There was no genocide in Guatemala."

Relatives of victims of Guatemala's civil war attend the trial in Guatemala City on March 19, 2013
Relatives of victims of Guatemala's civil war attend the trial against former Guatemalan de facto President (1982-1983), retired General Jose Efrain Rios Montt (out of frame), for genocide during his de facto 1982-83 regime, in Guatemala City on March 19,

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.

Rights activists played drums outside the court and insisted that genocide did indeed take place in Guatemala. "Why do they want to deny it?" demanded human rights advocate Sandra Moran.

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