Guatemala City – Testifying for the first time at his genocide trial, former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt denied on Thursday that he ordered the extermination of Ixil Mayas.
The 86-year-old retired general, who ruled Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983 during the height of its civil war, said prosecutors hadn't proved his participation in the killings.
"I declare myself innocent," Ríos Montt told the three-judge tribunal as many in the audience applauded. "It was never my intention or my goal to destroy a whole ethnic group."
"I never ordered attacks on a specific race. I never did it, and of everything they have said, there was no clear participation," he added.
The court was packed with representatives of indigenous, human rights and student groups as well as former soldiers and family members of victims.
Ixil Indian Benjamin Geronimo, president of the Justice and Reconciliation Association, told the tribunal that he survived massacres and killings that claimed the lives of 256 members of his community.
"I saw it with my own eyes, I'm not going to lie. Children, pregnant women and the elderly were killed," said Geronimo, who spoke on behalf of the victims.
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a genocidist to enter the kingdom of God," he said, sparking applause and cries of "justice" from the audience.
Ríos Montt is being tried together with José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, a 68-year-old former general who was a high-ranking member of the military chiefs of staff during Ríos Montt's administration. Rodriguez Sánchez's lawyer denied the charges against him.
On Wednesday, prosecutors asked that both men be sentenced to 75 years in prison.
Francisco García Gudiel, Ríos Montt's defense lawyer, denied the charges during closing arguments Thursday.
"My defendant never ordered, never ran, never planned, and never oversaw what he is accused of doing," he said.
A verdict could come Friday, although the judges have given no indication when they might deliver a verdict.
Ríos Montt seized power in a March 23, 1982, coup, and ruled until he was overthrown just over a year later.
Prosecutors say that while in power, Ríos Montt was aware of, and thus responsible for, the slaughter of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayas in the towns of San Juan Cotzal, San Gaspar Chajul and Santa Maria Nebaj in Guatemala's western highlands.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.