After almost a month-long trial, Judge Yassmin Barrios and her two colleagues on February 25 found two military officers guilty of crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence, sexual slavery and domestic slavery against 11 Maya Q’eqchi’ women. The defendants, former Col. Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón and former military commissioner (local army representative in rural areas) Heriberto Valdez Asig, were sentenced to 120 and 240 years in prison, respectively. The first was also found guilty of the murder of Dominga Coc and her two young girls, while the second was also convicted of the forced disappearance of seven men, who were the husbands of the women. The defendants were convicted for both direct participation and for their roles as those in charge of the base.
As narrated in an earlier post, the case had its origins in the families’ efforts to establish legal title to their lands in eastern Guatemala. Local landlords called in the army, which treated the local population as “guerrillas,” detaining the men, who were never seen again. Once the men were captured and disappeared, the women were considered fair game. They were moved to the outskirts of the military base, where they were forced to take turns cooking, cleaning and being raped by soldiers. The judgment found that the victims’ accounts of the rapes, corroborated by former soldiers and men who had been imprisoned and tortured in the military base of Sepur Zarco, were credible and proved the elements of the crime.
Guatemala’s penal code art. 378 is a hybrid of crimes against humanity and war crimes, and includes “inhuman acts against a civilian population.” Earlier cases had established that unenumerated acts could constitute inhuman acts even if not explicitly described in the law, so long as they were criminalized in national or international law. The prosecution and civil complainants (a coalition of women’s groups) presented expert evidence on the criminal nature of sexual violence, sexual slavery and domestic slavery under international law, on the political roots of the crimes in land issues, on military structure and other themes.
At trial, the women covered their faces with traditional shawls to hide their identity. Supporters noted that the women had been subject to stigma and isolation when they returned to their communities, while defense lawyers tried to paint the women as prostitutes who were now seeking to cash in on reparations payments with the support of foreign NGOs. The judges would have none of it, recognizing the courage of the women “for appearing, testifying and publicly denouncing the multiple sexual attacks to which they were subject, which have undoubtedly left them with irreversible post-traumatic stress.” The judges found that the women were treated as war booty, and that the fact that they no longer had husbands made them available, in the eyes of the military, for any kind of abuse.
“Acknowledging the truth helps to heal the wounds of the past and the application of justice is a right of the victims and helps strengthen the rule of law in our country, creating awareness that these types of crimes should not be repeated,” Judge Barrios declared.
This is the first case in a national court convicting military defendants for crimes of sexual violence and sexual slavery committed against their own citizens. As discussed here and here, international and internationalized criminal courts to date have been reluctant to, and not very good at, charging and proving these crimes, although upcoming cases may change that. It shows the importance of long-term work with groups of victims – one of the coalition of groups, ECAP – had been providing psychosocial help to the victims for over a decade. It brought together women’s groups (another of the civil complainant groups is called Women Transforming the World), groups working with indigenous women, and human rights groups. And it showed the importance of insisting on making national courts do their job, fighting impunity even under very difficult circumstances.