September 9, 2010 / 3:14 AM / 10 years ago

Guatemalan ex-soldiers on trial in landmark war case

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Three former soldiers will go on trial for the 1982 massacre of more than 250 people, a judge ruled on Wednesday in the first such court case in Guatemala for crimes committed in its dark civil war past.

Relatives of Guatemalan farmers murdered in 1982 show a poster during the start of the trial of former soldiers Manuel Popsun, Reyes Gualip and Carlos Carias outside the justice courts in Guatemala City, September 8, 2010. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Human rights investigators and victims’ family members have accused 17 soldiers, nine of them elite Special Forces, of entering the hamlet of Dos Erres in northern Guatemala and killing unarmed peasants after accusing them of supporting leftist guerrillas.

A United Nations-backed Truth Commission found the troops killed babies by throwing them against tress or bashing in their heads with hammers and then dumping their bodies into a well. The troops then proceeded to rape and murder the rest of the inhabitants over several days.

Only three of the accused soldiers have been apprehended in Guatemala and will go on trial next week, the judge said. Four others are in custody in the United States after immigration officers found they lied in their applications for U.S. citizenship and Guatemala requested their extradition.

While some military officials have been jailed for individual war-era crimes, this is the first time members of the armed forces will stand trial for a massacre.

“The magnitude of this case is what makes it so important,” a lawyer for the victims’ relatives, Edgar Perez, told Reuters. “It was the complete elimination of a village in a demonstration of the government’s scorched earth policy.”

Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war pitted a succession of right-wing governments against leftist insurgents, and led to nearly a quarter of a million deaths. The truth commission said the armed forces carried out over 80 percent of human rights abuses during the conflict.

Center-left President Alvaro Colom, who came to power in 2008, has pushed for the prosecution of other civil war cases like the August 2009 conviction of a paramilitary fighter for the forced disappearance of several people.

Colom’s uncle, a prominent leftist politician, was killed in an army ambush during the war.

The trial was set in motion after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights criticized the Guatemalan government last year for failing to adequately investigate the Dos Erres massacre.

The rights court ordered the government to pay $3 million to compensate victim’s families but no payments have yet been made.

Reporting by Sarah Grainger, editing by Mica Rosenberg

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