Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt,
Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt (Reuters)

Former Guatemalan military dictator Efrain Rios Montt will stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, a judge ruled.

Judge Carol Flores found sufficient evidence that linked Rios Montt to the killing of more than 1,700 indigenous people during a crackdown on insurgents in 1982 and 1983.

Prosecutors accuse Rios Montt of turning a blind eye to soldiers using rape, torture and arson to rid the country of leftists rebels in the Mayan highlands.

They also allege that Rios Montt, who ruled the country for 17 months, was responsible for a counterinsurgency plan that killed at least 1,771 unarmed members of the Ixil tribe.

"We're dealing with events that wronged not just the Guatemalan people, but wronged the entire world," said one prosecuting attorney. "On other occasions, I have said in front of this courtroom that when we talk about genocide, when we talk about crimes against humanity, we are talking about crimes that are condemned by the international community of civilized nations."

Rios Montt, 85, seized power in a 1982 coup backed by US President Ronald Reagan, who praised his ally as a man of great personal integrity during a visit that year.

He remained silent throughout the hearing, in which he was ordered to be detained under house arrest.

The former military dictator was in office during one of the bloodiest periods in the country's 36-year civil war, which claimed 200,000 lives, according to the United Nations.

Defence lawyer Danilo Rodriguez asserted that it was Rios Montt's intention only to restore order and cooperation among the Mayan-Ixil people. "He did not determine the level of force that the army used," Rodriguez said, arguing his client was not responsible for atrocities committed on the battlefield.

However, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Rios Montt's role in the massacre is clear, prosecutors argued. "He had direct participation in the implementation of the plans," a prosecutor said.