03/15/2012 01:58 EDT | Updated 05/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Rights group says Canada a "safer bet" to try accused Guatemalan war criminal

CALGARY - The hard line being taken by the Guatemalan courts in dealing with soldiers convicted in a 1982 massacre during that country's civil war hasn't softened the stance of a human rights group that is demanding one of the accused soldiers be tried in Canada.

Jorge Vinicio Orantes Sosa, 53, was arrested while visiting family in Alberta last year and was ordered extradited to the United States to face immigration charges. He is also wanted by Guatemalan authorities for the alleged massacre of civilians in the village of Dos Erres during that country's civil war.

A former member of the same unit, Pedro Pimentel Rios, was extradited from the United States in July and this week was sentenced to 6,060 years in prison for his role in the killings. He's the fifth former special forces soldier to receive such a sentence.

Still, the Canadian Centre for International Justice says Sosa should be tried here.

"I still think the safest bet is to have him charged in Canada," said Matt Eisenbrandt, the legal director of the centre.

"I think we've got the proper crimes to charge him with here and he could certainly, if those allegations are proven true, get a long and deserved sentence in Canada."

Eisenbrandt commended the progress made by prosecutors in Guatemala but said there are some concerns about what the future holds.

"We hear concerns from human rights groups in Guatemala that it remains to be seen what is going to happen with the new government there and whether they're going to allow these cases to continue," Eisenbrandt said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Canadian Press.

Retired general Otto Perez Molina was inaugurated as Guatemala's new president in January and has promised to crush criminality with an “iron fist.”

It's alleged a total of 251 men, women and children were killed during the massacre at Dos Erres. The military unit believed the village was under rebel control and that its inhabitants were responsible for an ambush on soldiers and the theft of 20 rifles. No weapons were found.

Sosa's extradition hearing was told that he was a sub-lieutenant at the Kaibil School, which trained special commando units in Guatemala in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was one of the commanders of a 60-man unit that surrounded Dos Erres in December 1982.

Many of the villagers were killed with sledgehammers. The women and girls were raped and their bodies thrown down the village well, the hearing heard.

"The evidence from the massacre at Dos Erres clearly establishes that Sosa was present and involved and actively participated in the killings with a sledgehammer, a firearm and a grenade,'' Alberta Court of Queen's Justice Neil Wittmann said in granting the extradition order last summer.

"It is hard for this court to comprehend these murderous acts of depraved cruelty.''

Sosa has denied the allegations and is currently in custody in Calgary, fighting the extradition order.

The length of the sentences handed to the soldiers are symbolic, since under Guatemalan law the maximum time a convict can serve is 50 years.

Eisenbrandt said his group has received no response from the federal government to their calls for a Canadian trial.