- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2003

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemala, still struggling to overcome 36 years of civil war, has endured months of election-related violence and faces the possibility of more as voters decide this weekend whether to give a former dictator accused of human rights abuses another chance to run the country.

Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, 77, is a distant third in the polls, but many fear he and his supporters will refuse to accept defeat in today’s presidential vote. Thousands of people attacked police and businesses in July, when it appeared court officials were prepared to block Mr. Rios Montt’s candidacy because he seized power in a 1982 coup.

Amnesty International released a report Friday warning of violent uprisings today.

“The violence could seriously distort the electoral process and the legitimacy of its outcome,” the report said. It cited at least 21 election-related killings and 46 threats against journalists.

Guatemala’s 1985 constitution forbids coup leaders from seeking the presidency, but the Supreme Court, packed with Mr. Rios Montt’s supporters, cleared the way for the former dictator to run.

It is unlikely today’s vote will determine the next leader. One candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the vote to win the election outright, or a runoff will be held Dec. 28 between the top two vote-getters.

Former Guatemala City Mayor Oscar Berger and center-left candidate Alvaro Colom of the National Union of Hope party are running in a dead heat, with roughly a third of the votes each, according to recent polls.

Mr. Rios Montt is far behind, with 11.3 percent, according to a newspaper poll published Wednesday that had a margin of error of five percentage points.

Backed by his former paramilitary fighters, who are accused of helping soldiers burn down villages and kill civilians during the country’s 1960-1996 civil war, Mr. Rios Montt is making a final attempt at the presidency. Many see his candidacy as a setback to Guatemala’s fragile, seven-year recovery from the war.

The United States, which backed Mr. Rios Montt during his dictatorship, has expressed concern about his candidacy.

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