On February 1, in a courtroom in Guatemala City, an historic trial will begin. Presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios – the same judge who presided over the Rios Montt genocide trial in 2013 – and her two colleagues will hear evidence against two former military officials for sexual violence, sexual slavery and domestic slavery as crimes against humanity. According to the Prosecutor, for up to six years Qek’chi Mayan women of rural communities were forced to take turns every two or three days washing, providing tortillas, cooking, cleaning and being raped at the military outpost of the community of Sepur Zarco, located on the border between the townships of Panzós and El Estor. Fifteen of the survivors, backed by a coalition of women’s groups, brought a complaint in 2011 against the commander of the base, retired colonel Esteelmer Reyes Girón, and Heriberto Valdéz Asij, the former military commissioner (the Army’s local representative in rural areas) in the region. In addition to the crimes against humanity charges, Reyes is charged with murdering Dominga Coc and her two young daughters on the base. Valdez will face additional charges of forced disappearance.
The crimes were committed during the early 1980s, the height of the counter-insurgency war, although the women were forced to provide food for the soldiers until 1988 when the outpost closed. They originated, as many things do in Guatemala, with a struggle over land. The women’s husbands, worried that their lands had no formal title, began to push for security of tenure. The area near Panzós has long been a site of land struggles, including a 1978 massacre that many historians consider the beginning of the campaigns against the rural Mayan population. The response of local landowners was to call in the army, which killed or disappeared the men. Several months later, the army attacked their widows, burning down the houses, destroying their belongings, raping them, and forcing them to move right outside the military base. At that point, the “turns” in the military base began. A few of the women chose to flee, and lived for years in the mountains, suffering hunger and losing some or all of their children.
For many years the women were afraid to speak of their ordeal, in part due to the stigma attached to begin the victim of sexual violence. Finally, after working with organizations focused on psycho-social help for survivors, they agreed to speak at a “Tribunal of Conscience” on violence against women during the internal armed conflict in 2010. The case was filed in 2011, and the defendants were arrested and held for trial in 2014.
International and internationalized tribunals have discussed the elements of the crime of sexual slavery. The Special Court for Sierra Leone, in the RUF case, identified the elements of crimes of sexual slavery as:
(i) The Accused exercised any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over one or more persons, such as by purchasing, selling, lending or bartering such a person or persons, or by imposing on them a similar deprivation of liberty;
(ii) The Accused caused such a person or persons to engage in one or more acts of a sexual nature; and
(iii) The Accused intended to exercise the act of sexual slavery or acted in the reasonable knowledge that this was likely to occur.
The War Crimes Chamber for Bosnia also has heard parallel cases involving the combination of sexual and domestic slavery. Most recently, a group of scholars (including several International Law Grrls) wrote an amicus brief to the Prosecutor in the Hissène Habré case asking that sexual violence charges be added to the indictment. The amicus made clear that, despite huge strides forward in making visible crimes against women during armed conflict and repression, there is still some way to go. That’s what makes the current proceedings so important.
Trial is expected to last some 40 days, although it is not yet clear how many delays will arise from defense motions or other sources. In the Rios Montt trial, defense lawyers made incessant motions aimed at delaying the trial, and there’s no reason to think these defendants won’t do the same. The women survivors and several male eyewitnesses are expected to testify, along with at least six experts on military structure, gender violence and other topics.