GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — A Guatemalan court issued the first conviction Friday against a leftist guerrilla commander for a massacre committed during the country's 1960-1996 civil war.
The three-judge court sentenced Solano Barrillas, 55, to 90 years in prison after convicting him of homicide and crimes against humanity for ordering the 1988 massacre of 22 pro-government farmers in the town of El Aguacate.
"This (sentence) is aimed at setting a legal precedent, to prevent these acts from ever being repeated," the court said in its ruling.
The massacre in El Aguacate began on November 22, 1988, when leftist rebels allegedly killed Carlos Humberto Guerra Callejas, a civilian liaison with the military in the village 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Guatemala City.
According to the widows of those killed, Guerra Callejas had discovered a secret stash of clothes, food and other goods hidden by the rebels and had been stealing from it. He went missing and when relatives and friends went to search for him they were ambushed by suspected rebels.
A few managed to escape, but 21 were captured, tortured and hanged. Soldiers found Guerra Callejas' body and fought against rebels before unearthing the bodies of the other 21 people buried in clandestine graves.
Rebels initially blamed the army for the El Aguacate massacre. But several years after a peace accord ended the war in 1996, a United Nations truth commission determined that rebels were responsible.
Solano Barrillas was arrested and charged in 2012 after the victims' relatives filed a complaint through the human rights organization Mutual Support Group.
According to a UN truth commission report, the Guatemalan army committed about 93 percent of the killings during the war that claimed more than 200,000 lives. About 3 percent were attributed to leftist guerrillas and responsibility for the other 4 percent remains unclear.
Solano Barillas is the first rebel commander to be convicted for such crimes. Several high-ranking officials and soldiers have been prosecuted on war-crimes charges.
The highest-ranking official, former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, was sentenced to 80 years in jail for his role in the massacres of thousands of Mayans during his 1982-83 rule. But last year, the country's Constitutional Court annulled the conviction, a decision many say was a sign of lingering influence by the wartime military and its supporters.
A retrial of Rios Montt is scheduled to begin in January.
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