Guatemala ex-dictator forced to appear at genocide trial on stretcher

GUATEMALA CITY - Guatemala's ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt was hauled to court on a stretcher Monday to attend his retrial on genocide charges before proceedings were halted by a motion to change judges.

The 88-year-old former ruler, who is accused of ordering the army to massacre 1,771 Ixil Maya Indians during Guatemala's brutal civil war, was brought to court in an ambulance after failing in his bid to be tried in absentia for health reasons.

But two of the judges on the three-judge panel accepted a motion by Rios Montt's attorneys to replace lead Judge Jeannette Valdez, who wrote about the case in a 2004 master's thesis that the defence team said showed bias.

Valdez said she accepted the decision and would recuse herself, adding that a new trial date would be set once her replacement had been chosen.

Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala with an iron fist in the early 1980s, was sentenced in 2013 to 80 years in prison for genocide and war crimes, but the country's Constitutional Court threw out the conviction on procedural grounds and ordered a retrial.

After Valdez rejected Rios Montt's request to be excused from attending the trial, saying medical documents did not indicate his health problems were high-risk, the former leader was brought into court on a stretcher, his face covered with a beige blanket.

Dozens of indigenous protesters gathered outside to call for a new guilty verdict, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu.

They shouted "Genocide!" and "We want justice!" as Rios Montt was taken from court.

Rios Montt has been under house arrest in an upscale neighborhood in the east of the capital, where he must be under "absolute rest," according to his lawyer Luis Rosales.

He ruled Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983, as the small Central American country struggled with a bloody civil war pitting successive rightwing regimes against leftist rebels.

Rios Montt and his former intelligence chief, Jose Rodriguez, are charged with ordering the army to carry out 15 massacres of Ixil Maya indigenous people in Quiche in northern Guatemala.

During the war, indigenous Guatemalans were often accused of supporting the rebels.

Rodriguez was acquitted in the initial trial.

The pair now face a new trial over the dictatorship's scorched-earth policy.

200,000 killed or disappeared 

Arriving at court in a wheelchair, Rodriguez said he was confident the retrial would clear his name.

"I want to put an end to this humiliation, this circus put together by NGOs that live off the conflict and international pressure," he told AFP.

Human rights activists reject the defence's claims that Rios Montt's poor health prevents him from standing, calling them a strategy to delay the ruling.

"The evidence is overwhelming," said Juan Francisco Soto of human rights group CALDH, adding that he would submit more than 800 pieces of evidence and the testimony of 120 survivors and victims' relatives.

"We already proved that there was genocide in Guatemala, and we expect another sentence," said Hector Reyes, a lawyer representing the victims.

Some 200,000 people were killed or vanished without a trace in Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war, according to a 1999 UN-sponsored report. More than 90 per cent of the human rights violations took place between 1978 and 1984.

Rios Montt's lawyers say he was unaware of the army's killings of indigenous people.