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Genocide Conviction In Guatemala Is 'Huge Breakthrough'

Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide by a court in his country Friday for the part he played in massacres and other crimes committed against Mayans while he ruled in 1982 and 1983.

As NPR's Carrie Kahn reported, Montt (who will likely appeal the verdict) was sentenced to 50 years in prison for genocide and another 30 for crimes against humanity. The judge said the evidence showed that the army, under Montt's control, had a systemic and clear plan to exterminate the Ixil people, whom they considered enemies of the state.

Montt, now 86, was found guilty of ordering the death of more than 1,700 people.

The significance of the verdict, writes the BBC, extends beyond the case against the former dictator: "It is the first time a former head of state had been found guilty of genocide by a court in his or her own country. Other genocide convictions have been handed down by international courts."

And, adds BBC Central America correspondent Will Grant, the decision is "a huge breakthrough for human rights in the region."

The Los Angeles Times reminds its readers that:

"A 1999 report by the country's truth and reconciliation commission listed widespread human rights abuses during the civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996 and claimed more than 200,000 lives. The panel found that 93 percent of the rights violations were committed by the government or its paramilitary allies. Guatemalan prosecutors accused Rios Montt of responsibility for the massacre of more than 1,700 Ixil Maya, as well as systematic rapes, tortures and the burning of villages."

Earlier this week, the PBS NewsHour reported about "the key role that science and forensics played in the trial. That involved analyzing bodies unearthed from graves and DNA of skeletons buried en masse during the war and studying satellite data of the countryside during the bloody regime."

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