A former U.S.-backed dictator who presided over one of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala's civil war will stand trial on charges he ordered the murder, torture and displacement of thousands of Mayan Indians, a judge ruled Monday.
Human rights advocates have said that the prosecution of Jose Efrain Rios Montt would be an important symbolic victory for the victims of one of the most horrific of the conflicts that devastated Central America during the last decades of the Cold War.
He is the first former president to be charged with genocide by a Latin American court.
"It's the beginning of a new phase of this struggle," said Paul Seils, vice president of the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice, which has worked extensively on war crimes cases in Guatemala. He said the decision was "a good step forward" but he expected the prosecution of Rios Montt to encounter stiff resistance from forces in Guatemala opposed to the punishment of government-allied forces for their actions during the civil war.
Others hailed the judge's ruling as a less-qualified victory for justice in Guatemala.
"The fact that a judge has ordered the trial of a former head of state is a remarkable development in a country where impunity for past atrocities has long been the norm," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
Guatemala's leaders have been criticized for years for their inability or unwillingness to prosecute government forces and allied paramilitaries accused of marching into Mayan villages, carrying out rapes and torture, and slaughtering women, children and unarmed men in a "scorched earth" campaign aimed at eliminating the support for a left-wing guerrilla movement.
Despite a series of international inquiries finding him responsible for war crimes, Rios Montt served as a Guatemalan congressman for 15 years until he lost a re-election race late last year. He had held immunity from prosecution while a member of Congress and was put under house arrest after losing his post.
One of the highest priorities of the president who won last year's election, Otto Perez Molina, has been campaigning for the elimination of a U.S. ban on military aid to Guatemala, which is locked in a fight against heavily armed drug cartels that have taken over swathes of the country.
Among the conditions set by the U.S. Congress for restoring the aid is reforming Guatemala's justice system and putting an end to impunity.