GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Former Guatemalan military dictator Efrain Rios Montt, hounded by charges of genocide for decades, died on Sunday aged 91, leaving bitter memories of his bloody stewardship of the Central American nation during its civil war.
Thousands of mostly rural Maya civilians were victims of massacre, rape and torture under a “scorched earth” policy implemented during his 17-month rule between 1982 and 1983 at the height of the Cold War-era conflict.
Rios Montt, diagnosed with senile dementia in 2015, faced a new genocide trial in 2017 overseen by a Supreme Court tribunal that was ongoing at the time of his death.
On Sunday, his lawyer Luis Rosales said the former dictator maintained his innocence up to his death.
In May 2013, a court found Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, prompting Amnesty International to hail the proceedings as the trial of the decade.
But just 10 days afterwards, the country’s top court quashed the conviction on a technicality after persistent efforts by his defense team to derail the trial with complex appeals.
Rios Montt took power in a bloodless coup in 1982 and founded the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front party.
An evangelical Protestant, Rios Montt was overthrown in August 1983, but served in Congress for nearly two decades until he stepped down in 2012. At a stroke, he lost the immunity granted by law to public officials and became open to prosecution for atrocities committed under his rule.
In January 2012, a Guatemalan court charged Rios Montt for conceiving a counterinsurgency plan that killed at least 1,771 members of the Ixil tribe and displaced thousands more. One year later, a judge ordered him to stand trial for the bloodshed.
The former dictator took the witness stand hours before his conviction, telling the court he had never committed genocide.
“My job as head of state was national policy. I was not commanding troops,” said Rios Montt, then 86.
Human rights activists in Spain also sought to charge Rios Montt with war crimes in Spanish courts.
Critics likened Rios Montt to other Latin American presidents who ruled with an iron hand, like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori.
But at the time his regime received open support from U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who believed Guatemala faced a serious challenge from leftist guerrillas suspected of being in alliance with Cold War communists.
An estimated 200,000, mostly Maya, civilians were killed during the 1960-1996 war and another 45,000 went missing.
A United Nations-backed truth commission report released after the 1996 peace accords found that the army and paramilitary groups were responsible for over 90 percent of more than 400 massacres during the war.
Born on June 16, 1926 in Guatemala’s rural western highland department of Huehuetenango, Rios Montt was the third of 11 children and became fascinated with the army at an early age.
Joining the military academy in 1943, he participated in the 1954 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-backed military coup that ousted democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz who was seen by the United States as a communist sympathizer.
That coup eventually ignited the brutal civil war, pitting a string of right-wing governments against leftist guerillas.
Rios Montt rose to the rank of general in 1972 and sought the presidency in 1974, losing to rival Kjell Eugenio Laugerud, the handpicked successor of the incumbent.
He went into exile, serving in Spain as the Guatemalan military attaché, before returning home in 1977 where he was introduced to the evangelical Church of the Word, eventually becoming a lay minister.
On March 23, 1982, Rios Montt headed a junta which removed President Angel Guevara from power, denouncing the elections earlier in the month as fraudulent. Declaring his presidency to be the “will of God,” Rios Montt annulled the constitution, dissolved Congress and suspended political parties.
He lost little time in reviewing the government’s anti-insurgency measures, opting for a crackdown that led to tens of thousands of deaths, tortures and displacements of Guatemala’s rural population suspected of aiding leftist rebels.
“If you are with us, we’ll feed you, if not, we’ll kill you,” he famously told a crowd of indigenous Maya in July 1982.
Such pronouncements did not prevent Reagan from describing Rios Montt as “a man of great personal integrity” who was “totally committed to democracy.”
In the 1990s Rios Montt tried twice to run for president but was blocked by a constitutional clause that prevented anyone who had taken part in a military coup from becoming head of state.
He settled for a seat in Congress instead, and went on to serve as president of the legislature.
Rios Montt tried again for the presidency in 2003 and when denied the chance, called on his supporters to take to the streets in protest. Two days of rioting now known as Black Thursday and Friday of Mourning erupted in the capital as protesters torched cars and buildings and shot out windows.
The courts eventually let the former general stand as a candidate, but he came a distant third in the race.
Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Editing by Richard Chang