GUATEMALA CITY — The defense lawyer for former dictator Efrain Rios Montt said Friday that a judge violated due process when she issued unprecedented genocide charges against Rios Montt for conduct during Guatemala's bloody civil war.
Danilo Rodriguez Galvez said Judge Carol Patricia Flores was supposed to issue her decision only after hearing testimony on allegations that Rios Montt was involved in hundreds of murders, human violations and the displacement of 29,000 people during the three-decade war.
Flores charged Rios Montt with genocide and crimes against humanity late Thursday, hours after he appeared in court but refused to testify about the allegations.
It's the first time a Latin American court has charged former president with genocide.
Flores first lectured Rios Montt for an hour on the allegations, citing witness testimony, before issuing her decision, Rodriguez said. He said that her conduct resembled a conviction and that he would file a formal complaint next week.
"The judge's duty was to report the resolution. The fact is that she talked for an hour as if the case had already been prosecuted," Rodriguez said.
Flores said Friday she would not comment because the complaint had yet to be formally filed.
Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala in 1982-83 after a military coup, is accused in 266 incidents that resulted in 1,771 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations and the displacement of 29,000 indigenous Guatemalans.
The war ended in 1996 with the signing of a peace accord between the government and leftist guerrillas. The conflict left more than 200,000 dead and missing, 93 percent of them by state forces and paramilitary groups, according to a U.N. report. Hundreds of Mayan villages were largely wiped away.
Thousands of people demanding prosecution packed the courthouse where Rios Montt appeared Thursday. There were also supporters in the crowd.
"I understand what the prosecution is saying and I won't respond," Rios Montt said before the judge, later adding: "The point is to do justice, not vengeance."
He had immunity from prosecution as a member of congress, but it expired Jan. 14.
After hearing daylong testimony, some by victims and witnesses of atrocities, Flores deliberated for three hours before issuing her decision. Rios Montt faces prosecution on charges he was the mastermind of the abuses in his roles as head of the military and Guatemala's equivalent of the secret service.
"Unfortunately there are cases like this where people have been waiting 29 years for justice," Flores said during the testimony.
The next step is for the prosecution to present the formal case against Rios Montt before the court.
He was ordered to be held under house arrest and to pay a $64,000 bond.
The former dictator was also told not to communicate with others accused in the case, which also involves country's first genocide charges against retired generals Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez and Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, the army chief of staff under Rios Montt.
Crimes against humanity charges were suspended earlier this month for retired Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia, the defense minister for Rios Montt who later deposed him to take over the presidency. The court determined Mejia doesn't have the physical or mental faculties to go to trial.
Rodriguez and Lopez have also claimed health conditions have kept them from court proceedings. All are in their 80s.
Prosecutors argued Thursday that as de facto president, Rios Montt was responsible for the army's "scorched earth" policy in communities where there was potential support for the leftist rebels.
Prosecutor Manuel Vasquez also accused him of authorizing massacres of ethnic Ixil Maya as well as sexual assaults on the women.
"The politics that caused the massacres started in 1965 and continued throughout," Rodriguez argued on behalf of Rios Montt. "You can't ascribe authorship of that long-term political policy to Rios Montt."
Zury Rios, the former leader's daughter who heads the Guatemala Republican Front political party, said the case against her father came from outside interests.
It was first brought in 2000 by the Center for Legal Action for Human Rights based on testimony of victims and their families.
Guatemala's 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Rigoberta Menchu, also has accused Rios Montt of genocide in a Spanish court.
The country's recently inaugurated president, Otto Perez Molina, was a top military officer during the war and has long insisted there were no massacres, human rights violations or genocide in the conflict.
But his close advisers have said he supports meeting the conditions set by various U.S. congressional appropriations acts for restoring aid that was first eliminated in 1978 halfway through the civil war. Among the required steps is reforming a weak justice system that has failed to bring those responsible for wartime abuses to justice.
The unprecedented genocide trial has continued since Perez took office earlier this month.