UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay [official profile] lauded [press release] Guatemala on Monday for beginning the trial of former president Efrain Rios Montt [JURIST news archive] and former intelligence chief Jose Rodriguez Sanchez, both of whom stand accused of committing genocide and crimes against humanity. The charges relate back to the 36-year Guatemalan civil war [BBC backgrounder], which resulted in more than 200,000 deaths, including the murder of more 1,700 villagers of Mayan ancestry. According to a UN report [text, in Spanish] released in 1999, the military was responsible for 95 percent of those deaths. This case, Pillay noted, marks the first time anywhere in the world that a former head of state was tried for genocide by a national tribunal.
Montt has been ordered to stand trial multiple times for alleged genocide and crimes against humanity, and the trial will open Tuesday. In January a Guatemalan judge ordered Montt to stand trial. Last May, Judge Carol Patricia Flores issued a second order [JURIST report] demanding Montt stand trial after ruling that a sufficient amount of evidence had been mounted against him, necessitating his testimony before a court of law. Montt was protected [JURIST report] from prosecution until last January because he was serving as a member of congress, an immunity that had been lifted due to his departure from the legislature.