GUATEMALA CITY — A former member of Guatemala's armed forces implicated President Otto Perez in civil war atrocities as he testified on Thursday at the genocide trial of ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt.
Hugo Reyes — who was stationed as an army engineer in a violent region of Guatemala under Rios Montt's 1982-1983 rule — said Perez commanded soldiers who burned down homes and shot and killed civilians during the civil war, which pitted leftist insurgents against a series of right-wing governments.
Perez, a retired army general who was elected president in 2011, also known as major Tito Arias during the civil war, has previously denied involvement in war crimes.
Reyes, speaking to the court by video link from an undisclosed location, said he witnessed the killing of farmers on an army base near the village of Nebaj in northwestern Guatemala by troops under the command of Perez and another officer.
"The soldiers under the orders of Major Tito Arias, known as Otto Perez Molina, Francisco Marin and the officers they were in charge of, and the commander of the company of engineers, coordinated the burning [of homes] and pulling people out so they could execute them," Reyes, 47, told the court.
There were gasps in the court as he spoke, and people who had been chatting fell silent. Throughout his testimony, Reyes kept his face hidden with the peak of the baseball cap he wore.
Before Perez took office in 2012, Reuters asked him about testimony linking him to war crimes during the 1960-1996 war in which around 200,000 people died and another 45,000 disappeared. Perez said the allegations were "completely false."
As president, Perez is protected by amnesty granted to public officials and cannot be subpoenaed.
Rios Montt, who left Congress last year, was ordered to stand trial in January when a judge found sufficient evidence linking him to the killing of more than 1,700 indigenous people in a counterinsurgency plan carried out under his command.
Prosecutors allege Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture, and arson against leftist rebels and targeted indigenous people in a "scorched earth" offensive that killed at least 1,771 members of the Mayan Ixil group.
Rios Montt, 86, has yet to take the stand in the trial, the first in which a country has prosecuted one of its former heads of state for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Reyes, now a mechanic, related how soldiers took kidnapped civilians to a military base where they were tortured, killed and dumped in mass graves.
"Some had their tongues cut out and their fingernails removed and other injuries," he said. "The army officers said to them: 'Sons of bitches, talk or we'll cut out your tongues.'"
Many of the victims of the conflict were ethnic Maya.
"Indian seen, Indian dead. That was the motto they had," said Reyes, the only former member of the armed forces prosecutors have lined up for the witness stand.
Perez, a conservative, was the first military man to take the Guatemalan presidency since the end of the war.
He won election not long after Guatemala began sentencing military officials for crimes committed during the war, and human rights activists raised concerns that Perez might obstruct efforts to bring army officials to justice.
Perez sought to allay those fears, and there was jubilation among victims' families when Rios Montt went to trial.
But when Reyes was asked by a lawyer working for the prosecution if he feared he had put his life in danger by testifying, he said he was afraid of retribution from Perez and his former military comrades.
"I'm totally sure that they feel nothing in their soul torturing and disappearing someone," he said.
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.