RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's hear now about a dramatic trial in Guatemala. That country's former dictator is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, stemming from the killings that happened in the early 1980s. Seventeen hundred indigenous Guatemalans - the Ixils people - died during one of the bloodiest periods of the country's three-decade-long war, a war that ultimately claimed more than 200,000 lives. At the time the U.S.-backed strongman, Ephraim Rios Montt, ruled the country.
NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Guatemala City on the first day of a genocide trial which was broadcast live throughout the country.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It was standing room only in the 300-seat Supreme Court auditorium where indigenous survivors, dressed in bright traditional clothes, sat side-by-side with supporters of the former general.
Nobel Peace Prize indigenous leader Rigoberta Menchu sat two seats down from the daughter of former dictator Rios-Montt. Fifty-eight-year-old Emilio Toheen sat patiently waiting for the former dictator to enter the courtroom. Toheen said in 1982 his wife and three children were taken prisoner by the army. He and his oldest daughter escaped and fled to Mexico. They had to wait 12 years until it was safe to return home and be reunited with the family.
EMILIO TOHEEN: (Spanish spoken)
KAHN: Twelve years is a long time. We lost 12 years.
TOHEEN: (Spanish spoken)
KAHN: But he says in his heart he knew one day justice would be served.
TOHEEN: (Spanish spoken)
KAHN: And that's what we're seeing today, he said calmly. It has taken prosecutors years to bring the case against Rios Montt to trial. But in a stunning move, his lawyers, who had kept him out of court all this time, were not present. Rios Montt appointed a new attorney, who immediately requested a five-day postponement to familiarize himself with the case. The judge denied that and multiple other delay requests. In opening arguments, prosecutors, who carried in 10 large boxes of evidence, said they will prove that Rios Montt set out to exterminate the indigenous Ixil people by declaring them enemies of the state. Attorney Edgar Perez says military documents show the Ixil were targeted because of their race.
EDGAR PEREZ: (Spanish spoken)
KAHN: Perez says this racism has been present in Guatemala for centuries but reached new heights during Rios Montt's 17-month rule. More than 1,700 were killed, many more placed in concentration camps, where Perez says women were raped and men were tortured. Defense attorney Francisco Garcia Gudiel said atrocities did occur but Rios Montt never gave any orders to exterminate a race.
FRANCISCO GARCIA GUDIEL: (Spanish spoken)
KAHN: Is there a document where he ordered extermination? No, said Garcia. On the contrary, he said there is plenty of evidence showing Rios Montt's support and aid to the indigenous people. Garcia then accused international activists of instigating and profiting from leftist causes in Guatemala. Jeff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin American, a human rights group, says such claims by the defense are ridiculous.
JEFF THALE: What they're to do here is move the subject away to suggest that it's troublesome foreigners and former guerillas, including in the attorney general's office, who are bringing this case out of vengeance.
KAHN: In one of the more dramatic motions by the defense, attorney Garcia accused the judge, Jazmin Barrios, of animosity toward him due to past disagreements. He demanded she recuse herself. Barrios admitted the two had conflicts.
JUDGE JAZMIN BARRIOS: (Spanish spoken)
KAHN: She said she held no ill will toward him and if he had lost faith in the court, then he should leave, and she ordered Garcia out. Barrios then appointed attorney Cesar Calderon to represent the former dictator. But Calderon is already representing Rio Montt's co-defendant. Calderon loudly objected.
CESAR CALDERON: (Spanish spoken)
KAHN: Waving the penal code book in his hand, Calderon said he came to a trial to represent former intelligence chief Jose Rodriguez Sanchez. But Calderon said this trial has become a public lynching, a circus. The judge then said she was not asking Calderon to be Rios Montt's attorney; she was ordering him to. Gasps could be heard throughout the large auditorium. If yesterday's turbulent first day is any indication, the trial, which is broadcast live on radio and TV, will continue to captivate the nation well into the summer. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Guatemala City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.