Guatemalan ex-dictator denies corruption charges

Guatemalan ex-dictator denies corruption charges

Guatemala's congress head denied accusations of corruption on Wednesday in a case human rights groups hope could lead to him being tried for alleged genocide committed when he was dictator during a civil war.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court court stripped retired Gen. Efrain Rios Montt and 23 other Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) lawmakers of congressional immunity regarding corruption allegations in the small Central American nation.

The court's ruling paved the way for the lawmakers to face charges they altered the published version of a law approved last June, resulting in a lower tax on alcoholic beverages than originally approved by Congress.

"I've been implicated. I'm not guilty," the 74-year-old former military strongman told reporters. "If we lied, committed an abuse or were imprudent ... we will have to go to prison."

Tuesday's ruling allows the 24 deputies only to face charges concerning the altered law.

But human rights groups hope a high-profile corruption trial will erode the influential ex-dictator's popularity in the government of President Alfonso Portillo and lead to a genocide trial.

Human rights groups say Rios Montt ordered massacres of thousands of Maya Indians during his 1982-83 rule, told reporters at Congress.

Rights activists praised Tuesday's ruling as a major step against impunity.

"The Supreme Court of Justice paid respect to its name," columnist Dina Fernandez wrote in Wednesday's edition of leading newspaper Prensa Libre.

Rios Montt said he and the other deputies welcomed the court's decision as a sign of judicial independence in Guatemala.

But Rios Montt, who was elected in the December 1999 landslide election victory that rocketed populist Portillo to power, also said lawyers were considering an appeal of the ruling.

Guatemalan newspapers and human rights groups have fiercely criticized the Portillo government, constantly highlighting alleged corrupt acts by ministers.

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