Retired Guatemalan colonel sentenced to 20 years for civil war massacre

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Retired Guatemalan colonel Juan Ovalle Salazar was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Thursday for his role in the massacre of 25 Indigenous people, mostly children, some 40 years ago during one of the most brutal periods of the country's conflict.

Eight other former members of the Central American country's military and civil defense were acquitted, said Judge Walter Mazariegos as he handed out the sentence at a Guatemala City court.

Ovalle appeared in court but did not speak and his lawyers were not immediately available for comment. He will have 10 days from Sept. 5 to appeal against the sentence, the judge said.

The massacre of the 25 Maya Achi people, including 17 children, took place on July 29, 1982, at Rancho Bejuco, a mountain hamlet north of the capital.

It came during the 17-month rule of General Efrain Rios Montt, the bloodiest period of the 36-year civil war. Rios Montt was convicted of genocide in 2013 but this was later overturned by a higher court.

Prosecutors said Ovalle had ordered the massacre because some of the inhabitants of Rancho Bejuco had refused to join civil self-defense patrols, known as PAC, created by the army at the time to control the population.

Six of the defendants were members of the PAC, and two were military commissioners who coordinated army and PAC operations, the prosecution said.

In summing up his decision to acquit the eight, the judge said they had acted on the orders of Ovalle and would have been killed had they not complied.

But a lawyer representing victims' families said they would appeal against the acquittals.

"We believe there were reasons to issue a guilty verdict to all of them," said lawyer Lucia Xiloj.

"They were a part of the military structure."

Ovalle was arrested in 2016 and is facing charges in connection with another 1982 massacre, at Pambach, in which 64 people were murdered. The case has dragged on despite demands for progress from the community.

Several such cases from Guatemala's extended civil war made possible by survivors and victim's relatives campaigning for justice.

Bodies from the Rancho Bejuco massacre began to be exhumed in 1999 and the eight other defendants were arrested in February last year. Sixteen months later, the trial began.

(Reporting by Enrique Garcia in Guatemala City; Writing by Sarah Morland; Editing by Robert Birsel)