By Mike McDonald
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Survivors of Guatemala's bloody civil war relived the massacre of relatives as they testified on Wednesday against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who is accused of overseeing genocide during the 36-year conflict.
Rios Montt, 86, the first ex-head of state to stand trial for crimes against humanity in his own country, was not prosecuted for years for alleged atrocities committed during his 1982-1983 rule because of his protected status as a congressman.
But after retiring last year, Rios Montt was ordered to face trial by a judge who found sufficient evidence linking him to the killing of more than 1,700 indigenous people in a counterinsurgency plan executed under his command.
On the second day of the landmark trial, civil war victims recounted horrific tales of watching their family members killed and their homes torched by soldiers.
"They came and they massacred my mother, my brother and my brother-in-law. They burned homes," said Tomas Chavez, 45, in tears as he recalled the November 1982 massacre in Nebaj in the northwestern state of Quiche.
Santiago Perez, described the murder of his son in July 1982 near the same village.
"We were at home with other people and a man came. He tied up (my son), putting a lasso around his neck and hung him. Then he took him out, pulled him and killed him. They shot him dead," Perez said. He fled to the woods and returned two weeks later to find his home and crops burned, his sheep killed.
Prosecutors allege Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson against leftist insurgents and targeted indigenous people in a "scorched earth" offensive that killed at least 1,771 members of the Mayan Ixil group.
The defense argues that Rios Montt did not control battlefield operations and that there was no genocide.
"It's not possible to prove these crimes. It's impossible at this moment to prove that there was a genocide in Guatemala and that is what we will prove," said Marco Antonio Cornejo, a lawyer for Rios Montt.
Humans rights advocates and victims have described the trial as a sea change for Guatemala.
"It's a strong voice against impunity and a strong voice in favor of victims," said Nobel Peace Prize-winning rights activist Rigoberta Menchu, who attended the trial. "We hope that from now on, we (the indigenous people) are accepted by Guatemala's polarized society that carries with it the genocide of the past."
Roughly 200,000 civilians, most of them of Mayan descent, were killed during the 1960-1996 civil war as a string of right-wing governments attempted to rid Guatemala of leftist guerilla fighters suspected of being in league with Communists.
Another 45,000 people disappeared.
A United Nations-backed truth commission report released after the 1996 peace accords found that the army and paramilitary groups were responsible for more than 90 percent of the hundreds of massacres carried out during the war.
Born in Huehuetenango, a province in Guatemala's rural western highlands dotted with indigenous communities, Rios Montt took power in March 1982 when he led a military coup that toppled President Angel Guevara.
He remained politically active after being overthrown in a coup in August 1983, serving in Guatemala's legislature and launching an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2003.
Genocide trials have been rare for ex-leaders in Latin America, which was scarred by bloody civil conflicts and repression. Charges were raised against Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet, but he died in 2006 before standing trial.
A three-judge panel must debate the evidence, then sentence or exonerate Rios Montt. A prosecutor has said that up to 130 victims and 75 experts are expected to testify during the trial, which could run several months.
(Reporting by Mike McDonald; Writing by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Eric Beech and Stacey Joyce)