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Controversial Former Guatemalan Dictator Awaits Ruling on Eligibility to Run for President - 2003-07-09

Revered by his supporters as the strong, God-fearing leader that Guatemala needs, and scorned by his detractors as a genocidal dictator, Efrain Rios Montt remains one of the most controversial figures in Guatemalan history. And he also hopes to be the nation's next president. He is now awaiting a ruling from Guatemala's highest court as to whether he can run in the upcoming elections, despite a constitutional ban on former dictators running for president.

Efrain Rios Montt's theme song played in a Guatemala City stadium, while delegates at his party's national convention named him their candidate for the November presidential elections. The stadium was filled with posters showing a symbol of a hand with three raised fingers.

The hand sign is the symbol of the FRG, the ruling party, which Mr. Rios Montt directs from his post as legislative president. But this year it takes on another meaning: this is the third time Mr. Rios Montt is attempting to overcome a constitutional ban on former dictators running for president.

This 77-year-old evangelical preacher and one-time right-wing military dictator hopes that this time around the highest court in Guatemala will agree with him and rule that the constitutional ban is itself unconstitutional.

No law can be retroactive. The constitution was written in 1985, he says, and he ruled in 1982 and 1983.

Legal analysts, like Roberto Molina, president of the private Center for the Defense of the Constitution say whether he is successful or not, the mere effort by the general, as he is known here, to try to challenge the constitution is detrimental to the country.

The fact that the official party is trying to register a candidate that everyone knows cannot register, is causing confusion about what you can and cannot do in this country, he says. This is a young democracy where people are still learning to respect the rule of law, he says.

State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher told reporters in Washington that U.S. relations with Guatemala would suffer under a Rios Montt presidency.

One of the general's biggest critics, human rights leader Frank La Rue, says the controversy around Mr. Rios Montt's candidacy is not just a legal issue, but an ethical one.

"Rios Montt simply is the symbol of genocide," he said. "It was during his two years of government that the majority of massacres, displacements, sexual abuse of indigenous woman and all these atrocities were committed. He cannot be president. He doesn't have the moral standards to be a statesman."

Guatemala's 36-year civil war between government forces and leftist rebels left a toll of 200,000 people, mostly Maya Indians, dead or disappeared before it ended in a peace accord in 1996. The Historical Clarification Committee, Guatemala's version of a truth commission, concluded that agents of the state committed genocide against Maya Indians during the years that included Mr. Rios Montt's rule. The report did not name him specifically.

But Mr. La Rue's group estimates that some 60,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed during Mr. Rios Montt's rule.

For his part Mr. Rios Montt says he had nothing to do with it. There were massacres and dead people all over the place, he says, but he never ordered it.

At a recent rally in the highlands of Guatemala, Mr. Rios Montt's supporters cheered him on. Not everyone here remembers his rule for the atrocities.

His supporters recall it as a time when there was little common crime and they say he is the only one who can bring order to this turbulent nation.

Mr. Rios Montt says its time the people and not the courts decide whether they want him for president. It is not so much about whether or not he is allowed to register, he says, but about whether Guatemalans are allowed to vote for the person they want. If they let him register, he says, he'll win in the first round.

The court should make its ruling next week.