By Mike McDonald
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt told a court on Thursday he never ordered the genocide of his own people, taking the witness stand for the first time as the war crimes trial against him neared its conclusion.
Rios Montt, 86, is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for allegedly drawing up a counterinsurgency plan during his 1982-1983 rule that killed at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil indigenous group.
Prosecutors say Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson to rid Guatemala of leftist rebels during one of the bloodiest phases of Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war, allegations he denies.
Rios Montt, who had originally waived the right to testify in his own defense, spoke for about an hour just after the prosecution gave their closing arguments at the trial.
"I am innocent," he told the full courtroom. "I never had the intent to destroy any national ethnic group."
A panel of three civilian judges must weigh the evidence against Rios Montt, who has been under house arrest for more than a year. The panel could issue a ruling later on Thursday.
Taking power in March 1982 at the head of a military coup that overthrew President Angel Guevara, Rios Montt was himself toppled in another takeover by the army 17 months later.
"I have never ordered genocide," Rios Montt said, adding that he took over a "failing" Guatemala in 1982 that was completely bankrupt and full of "subversive guerrillas."
Thousands of Guatemalans who lost family and friends during the war are awaiting the verdict. The conflict claimed the lives of around 200,000 people, many of them ethnic Maya. A additional 45,000 people disappeared.
During the trial, nearly 100 prosecution witnesses told tales of massacres, torture and rape by state forces.
The defense argued Rios Montt did not control operations, that specific ethnic groups were not targeted and that the war pitted belligerents of the same ethnicity against one another.
Rios Montt said each field commander was responsible for acts carried out on his watch during the civil war.
"There is autonomy in the chain of command," he said before the defense began its closing arguments. "My job as head of state was national policy. I was not commanding troops.
(Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Simon Gardner and Mohammad Zargham)