Guatemala fears worst as Montt seeks power

When Efrain Rios Montt, the former Guatemalan dictator, held power in the early 1980s, thousands of civilians were shot, tortured and "disappeared" in the most violent episode of the Central American nation's history. Now, as the still traumatised country prepares for a general election tomorrow, that darkest hour has come back to haunt it.

At the age of 77, the former strongman has defied charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in the country's courts, as well as a constitutional ban preventing him from running for president. His avuncular gaze looks down at voters from billboards and campaign posters across this mountainous country of 11 million people.

Mr Rios Montt is widely held responsible for the deaths of up to 70,000 mostly Mayan Indians in a "scorched earth" policy which followed the 1982 coup that brought him to power. Human rights groups say his presidential candidacy for the ruling Republican Front party (FRG) has led to a resurgence in political violence and cast a shadow over the 1996 peace accords which ended more than three decades of civil war.

"The current campaign is probably the most violent and uncertain since Guatemala returned to democracy in the 1980s," said Miguel Angel Sandoval of the Centre for Legal Action and Human Rights in Guatemala City.

"Mr Rios Montt should not be standing as a candidate for the presidency, he should be on trial in The Hague alongside former Serbian ruler Slobodan Milosovic."

Mr Sandoval says 29 activists from a range of opposition parties, including the former URNG guerrilla movement, have been gunned down in a spate of political killings during the election campaign. He said there were grave concerns over the recent "reactivation" of the widely feared armed civil defence patrols formed by the army to crush support for leftist rebels during the civil conflict.

After months of rumbling protests, about 1,000 of the former paramilitaries seized four journalists and a government driver at a roadblock near the Mexican border in late October. They threatened to shoot or burn them alive if they were not given a payment of $660 each, pledged by the FRG administration of President Alfonso Portillo for "services to the fatherland". They were later released unharmed.

The rights foundation, set up by the Mayan Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, also sounded the alarm this week about "electoral manipulation", as FRG party activists attempted to win over voters in the country's impoverished departments of Quetzaltenango and Alta Verapaz with gifts of rice, chickens and bicycles as campaigning drew to a close.

The group - which in 1999 unsuccessfully petitioned the crusading Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon to try Mr Rios Montt and seven other military and civilian officials for genocide stemming from civil war massacres - charged that the FRG had used "manipulation, threats and intimidation to secure votes for their candidates" in 16 of the country's 22 departments.

"Whether [Mr Rios Montt] wins or loses on Sunday, his campaign has reopened a lot of wounds for Guatemalans," a taxi driver, Jorge Munoz, 32, said. "People are scared of being taken back to a time of militarisation and violence."

Newspaper opinion polls show the former dictator is in third place in the race behind the business candidate Oscar Berger and second-placed Alvaro Colom, of the National Unity and Hope party. The former dictator says, however, that the polls do not reflect his support in rural areas.

To win outright tomorrow one of the candidates must secure 50 per cent of the vote. If this does not happen, the two leading candidates will go head-to-head in a run-off on 28 December. Mr Sandoval says Mr Rios Montt could only win through to the second round through "scandalous fraud". He added: "A defeat for him could be a victory for us. From 10 November, the day after the election, he should go on trial. We are going to talk to the new president to try and bring this about."

More than 2,000 electoral observers will be stationed across the country to deter violence.

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