(CNN) — Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was found guilty of the genocide of more than 1,700 indigenous Ixil Mayans during his 1982-83 rule.
A three-judge panel issued the verdict Friday, one day after the conclusion of the trial. The court sentenced the 86-year-old Rios Montt to 80 years in prison.
The trial marked the first time a head of state was tried for genocide by his country’s own judicial system.
Yassmin Barrios, the tribunal’s president, read a lengthy review of how the judges reached their verdict before announcing it. The dozens of Ixil witnesses proved that the military killed, tortured and raped the indigenous population. As de facto president, Rios Montt knew that atrocities that were being committed and did nothing to stop it, Barrios said.
Rios Montt’s co-defendant and intelligence chief, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was absolved.
The court ordered the former leader straight to prison, revoking his house arrest.
A conclusion of the trial seemed in doubt in the past weeks, as multiple challenges by the defense were filed in several courts. At one point, one judge annulled the testimony in the trial before got back on track.
“It’s historic for this country,” Guatemalan political analyst Martin Rodriguez told CNN en EspaÃ±ol. “Surprising, because many of us remain incredulous that Guatemala’s judicial system could handle a trial of this magnitude.”
The landmark criminal trial could open the doors for future charges against military officials accused of atrocities during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. The war did not end until 1996, leaving more than 200,000 people dead and 1 million as refugees.
There will almost certainly be an appeal to Friday’s verdict, Rodriguez said.
While Rios Montt was in power, the military used the threat of leftist rebels as a guise to exterminate Ixil villages accused of harboring insurgents, prosecutors argued. According to prosecutors, the campaign led to the genocide of more than 1,700 Ixil Mayans.
Rios Montt did not speak in his defense until the last day of the trial, arguing that it was not him, but local commanders, who had control over their territories.
“I never authorized, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered these attacks against a people, ethnicity or religion,” Rios Montt said Thursday.
Rios Montt was not without his supporters, who claim there was no genocide, but a high cost during a bloody civil war.
Human rights groups hailed the verdict.
“With this conviction, Guatemala leads by example in a region where entrenched impunity for past crimes sadly remains the norm,” Sebastian Elgueta, Guatemala researcher at Amnesty International, said. “Guatemala must now follow up on this historic moment by ensuring that all those who took part in the murder, torture, rape and disappearance of tens of thousands of people are brought to justice.”