Guilty Verdict in Guatemala Trial on Sexual Slavery and Sexual Violence as Crimes Against Humanity

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.
0b197ffc-afde-4014-85b7-818c0c6869b6_749_499“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.

 

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Why we should be watching the ICC on 21 March

On 21 March 2016, Trial Chamber III of the International Criminal Court (ICC) will deliver the trial judgment in the case against Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo (Bemba). It will be an important day in the life of this now 14-year-old institution. If Bemba is convicted as charged, he will not only be the first military commander to be convicted for crimes committed by troops under his command, but it will be the first conviction at the ICC for sexual violence. Both issues have been the subject of fierce litigation.

Command responsibility

Bemba stood trial as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC) for five counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by MLC soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002-2003. The MLC had entered the CAR to assist then CAR President Ange-Felix Patassé to suppress an attempted military coup. There, the MLC soldiers are alleged to have engaged in a campaign of pillage, murder, and rape against the civilian population. While he did not commit these crimes himself, Bemba stood trial because “he knew or should have known” that his troops were committing these crimes, and “did not take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress their commission”. He is the first person to have been charged at the ICC with command responsibility under article 28 of the Rome Statute.

This mode of liability, however, was disputed. During the confirmation of charges hearing in 2009, the Prosecution originally submitted that Bemba was responsible as a co-perpetrator under article 25(3)(a). When the Pre-Trial Chamber, adjourning the confirmation hearing, indicated that the evidence appeared to suggest a different mode of liability, the Prosecution amended the charges, bringing both article 25(3)(a) and article 28 in the alternative. Amnesty International was subsequently accepted as amicus curiae on the issue of superior responsibility. The Pre-Trial Chamber eventually confirmed charges against Bemba under article 28, finding substantial grounds to believe that he “knew that MLC troops were committing or were about to commit crimes”.

In September 2012, the mode of liability was again the subject of discussion, this time following a Trial Chamber decision to use the controversial Regulation 55. Whereas the Pre-Trial Chamber had only confirmed charges on the basis that Bemba “knew” crimes were being committed, the Trial Chamber notified the parties and participants that it may consider the alternate form of knowledge, namely that “owing to the circumstances at the time, … [he] should have known that the forces … were committing or about to commit such crimes”. The Defence objected and sought leave to appeal, which the Trial Chamber rejected. After further back-and-forth between the Defence and the Chamber concerning the need for additional investigations, the Trial Chamber reiterated in a decision in 2013 that it had not yet made a “formal decision” on the recharacterisation. It reserved judgment on the matter for its article 74 decision. The question is thus likely to be addressed extensively in the upcoming trial judgment, and will hopefully provide important clarification on the responsibility of military commanders for the actions of their troops and for failures to prevent, repress or punish the commission of crimes.

Continue reading

Confirmation of charges hearing in Dominic Ongwen case: hopeful signs for gender justice?

From 21 to 27 January 2016, the confirmation of charges hearing in the Dominic Ongwen case was held at the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is an important case for many reasons, one of which is this post’s subject: the case includes a high number of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) charges, which, if confirmed, would be the broadest range of such crimes ever to come to trial at the ICC. It would certainly illustrate that the positive trend in this respect that started with the Ntaganda case continues, and would consolidate important case law on these crimes.

Dominic Ongwen, an alleged senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is charged with responsibility for 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the LRA in various locations in Northern Uganda from at least 1 July 2002 to 31 December 2005. Importantly, the charges include eight counts of SGBV: rape, torture, and sexual slavery as both war crimes and crimes against humanity, and forced marriage and enslavement as crimes against humanity. This makes it an important case for gender justice at the ICC. The case has the highest number of SGBV charges to date.

However, if the Court’s track-record for sexual violence charges is something to go by, we are in for a rainy day. With Ngudjolo’s acquittal in 2012, and Katanga’s partial conviction in 2014 excluding sexual violence crimes, there have thus far been no successful convictions for SGBV crimes at the ICC. This is a disappointing record for a Court that was heralded as a “model for gender justice” when its Statute entered into force.

With the Office of the Prosecutor’s (OTP) stated commitment to strengthen its investigation and prosecution of SGBV, however, there is hope that this case will be different. It follows in the footsteps of the Ntaganda case – the first case to reach the confirmation stage since Fatou Bensouda took office as Prosecutor; this was the first case in which all SGBV charges sought by the Prosecution at confirmation were confirmed. Further, in the Ntaganda case, the OTP is pushing the understandings of IHL protections around (sexual violence) crimes committed against one’s own troops. If successful, this would develop international law’s gendered understandings of child recruitment.

The Ongwen case may shed light on yet another relatively under-developed area of gender justice in international criminal law jurisprudence. It would be one of the few cases in international criminal justice to address the crime of forced marriage. While not included in the Rome Statute as a separate offence, the Prosecution has charged forced marriage as an inhumane act of similar character under Article 7(1)(k). The Prosecution alleges that the LRA pursued a policy of abducting women and young girls with the express aim of forcing them to act as wives of LRA commanders and fighters. While the OTP alleges that exclusive sexual services were an inherent part of being a forced wife, importantly, they argued that it also encompasses other, non-sexual, tasks such as household chores, cooking, and child rearing, i.e. raising new LRA fighters.  Continue reading

Sexual and gender-based violence in the Colombian conflict should not get a raw deal before the International Criminal Court

In 2014 an average of two women were raped every three days in the course of the armed conflict in Colombia. Sexual and gender-based violence is a systematic and widespread phenomenon. Yet to date there have been very few convictions for sexualized violence – especially in cases in which the perpetrator was a member of the armed forces. By failing to act, the Colombian state is denying women the protection against sexualized crimes and access to justice that it is obliged to guarantee under national and international law. The Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has to date failed to include a comprehensive gender perspective into its assessment of the Colombian conflict. In its Interim Report on the Situation in Colombia from November 2012, the OTP acknowledged that between 2002 and 2008, members of the Colombian army deliberately killed thousands of civilians (so called “falsos positivos” cases) and classified them as crimes against humanity. The OTP also noted that rape and other forms of sexual violence can be attributed to state forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla. Regarding state forces, however, the OTP thus far considered sexual crimes only as war crimes. It remained silent on the question of whether sexual violence committed by the state forces could amount to crimes against humanity.

A comprehensive legal analysis of a conflict situation under international criminal law requires an adequate narrative of the conflict, which necessarily involves a gender perspective in order to detect and avoid patriarchal ways of applying international norms and international criminal law. The new Policy Paper on Sexual and Gender-Based Crimes (PP) by the OTP of the ICC provides a helpful tool for applying these norms without reproducing gender inequalities. The content of the PP is the achievement of long-term lobbying by feminist activists and academics and is based on a liberal rights-based approach of feminist theory. In the PP, the OTP announces its intention to integrate a “gender perspective” and “gender analysis” at all stages of its work, terms, which, however, remain rather vague. Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda recently acknowledged, “an important aspect of challenging the culture of discrimination that allows sexual and gender-based crimes to prevail is the effective investigation and prosecution of those most responsible for such heinous crimes.”

Therefore, the OTP should start implementing its PP in the Colombian case. This could have a substantive effect on preliminarily examinations in general, and on evaluating command responsibility and the admissibility criteria in particular. Continue reading

This Tuesday (5/5): UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay at Stanford

For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area on May 5, Stanford University’s WSD HANDA Center for Human Rights and International Justice is pleased to present its Inaugural Public Lecture on Human Rights with Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. She will address The Protection and Promotion of Human Rights: Achievements and Challenges at 5:30 p.m. on May 5 in CEMEX Auditorium at Stanford University (641 Knight Way).

The address will cover Ms. Navi Pillay’s work as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on prevention of human rights violations and implementation of human rights principles, as well as the activities of the UN Human Rights mechanisms such as the Human Rights Council, Treaty Bodies, and Special Procedures. She will also share her insights on future human rights challenges.

Navi Pillay served at the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008 to 2014. Her tenure was marked by a focus on addressing discrimination on all grounds, including against previously unaddressed groups such as migrants, LGBT people, people with albinism, and caste-based discrimination. She oversaw the 2011 launch of Free & Equal, an unprecedented global public education campaign to promote greater respect for LGBT rights, and the Secretary-General’s endorsement of the Rights Up Front policy, which ensures that every UN department, regardless of mandate, is committed to advancing the protection of human rights.

A native of South Africa, Pillay was the first non-white female judge of the High Court of South Africa, and previously served as a judge at the International Criminal Court and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda where she oversaw groundbreaking jurisprudence on rape as genocide, and on issues of freedom of speech and hate propaganda.

Attendees can kindly RSVP to Jessie Brunner at jbrunner@stanford.edu. We hope to see you there!

A note about the Handa Center:

The WSD HANDA Center for Human Rights and International Justice is dedicated to promoting the rule of law, accountability, and human rights around the world, in post-conflict settings, developing countries, and in societies grappling with difficult legacies from a historical period of violent conflict. Through research and international programs, the Handa Center supports and helps improve the work of domestic courts, international tribunals, and human rights commissions around the world. Relying on a small core group of lawyers, scholars, student interns, and volunteers, the Center concentrates its resources where it can make a real difference helping people make sense of the past, come to terms with periods of violent social upheaval, and build institutions that will promote justice and accountability. The Center is further committed to increasing awareness and raising the level of discourse around new developments in the fields of human rights and international law. To this end, the Handa Center has dedicated itself to becoming a major public resource center for the study of war crimes and human rights trials, where students, scholars, and legal practitioners can take advantage of new technologies to access unique archival resources from World War II through contemporary international criminal trials. The Handa Center succeeds and carries on all the work of the University of California at Berkeley’s War Crimes Studies Center, which was established by Professor David Cohen in 2000.

Precipitating Politics Around The Revival of Prosecutions in Bangladesh

This is part 3 of a three-part series on the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal.  Part 1 (overview) and 2 (deep history) are here and here, respectively.

Fast forward to the present day. Prosecuting local collaborators for crimes committed at Liberation emerged as a central campaign pledge of the Awami League and now-Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed during the 2008 elections when the Awami League “Grand Alliance” emerged triumphant. The law was not invoked until 2010 when authorities arrested four leading politicians from the rival Islamist political party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Jamaat-e-Islami had been banned from political participation following the 1971 war of independence, and its leaders went into exile in Pakistan. The ban was eventually lifted. The party revived, was mainstreamed, and eventually joined in multiparty alliances with, most prominently, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). It is now the principal Islamist political party in Bangladesh and a key opponent to the majority Awami League. The most recent general elections were held on January 5, 2014. Jamaat-e-Islami was barred from participating, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and other opposition parties chose to boycott the elections. As a result, 154 of 300 seats went uncontested, so Awami League candidates won by default. The rise of the Awami League, and the marginalization of any credible political opposition, has cleared the way for the government to launch targeted prosecutions against key political opponents under the 1973 Act.

Once prosecuting political opponents became policy, Parliament amended the 1973 Act several times to make it operational. The legislation, which mostly incorporates the Nuremberg/Tokyo definitions of the crimes and benefited from the assistance of international law experts, was quite forward leaning for its time in terms of substantive law. By today’s sensibilities, however, the legislation is outdated and does not reflect recent developments in the law occasioned by the work of the ad hoc criminal tribunals.

The real concerns, however, relate to a number of procedural infirmities contained in the statute itself and in amendments to the Constitution that deny procedural protections to individuals detained or prosecuted under the 1973 Act. For example, 1973 amendments to the Constitution protect the Act from legal attack. Notably, Article 47(3) states:

(3) Notwithstanding anything contained in this Constitution, no law nor any provision thereof providing for detention, prosecution or punishment of any person, who is a member of any armed or defence or auxiliary forces or who is a prisoner of war, for genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes and other crimes under international law shall be deemed void or unlawful, or ever to have become void or unlawful, on the ground that such law or provision of any such law is inconsistent with, or repugnant to any of the provisions of this Constitution.

Article 47A also withdrew certain procedural rights from individuals subject to Article 47(3)—including the right to enjoy the protection of the law, the prohibition of ex post facto prosecutions, the right to a speedy and public trial, and the right to challenge the court’s jurisdiction.

The legislation itself invalidates additional rights, including the right against self-incrimination (the statute provides that defendants shall not be excused from answering any question on the ground that the response will incriminate the suspect). Long pre-trial detentions have led the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to declare that several defendants hve been subjected to arbitrary detention in violation of international law, notably the ICCPR. In addition, idiosyncratic Rules of Procedure and Evidence govern the Tribunal, so any protections contained in the normal criminal procedure code, including rights of appeal, are inapplicable. For example, the law imposes an obligation on the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court to dispose of any BICT appeal within 60 days—a tall order given that no interlocutory appeals are allowed. In practice, although the accused ostensibly enjoy the right to counsel of their choice, the Bangladesh government and Bar Association have made it virtually impossible for outside counsel to adequately represent their clients by, among other things, restricting their travel to the country and their presence in interrogations. Several trials—including that of Abdul Kalam Azad, the first case to go to verdict—have proceeded in absentia. A U.S. citizen, Ashrafuzzaman Khan, and a U.K. subject, Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, have also been sentenced to death in absentia for crimes against humanity. Such trials are not, per se, contrary to international law, but defendants must be given a right to a retrial if and when they are apprehended. No defendant in his right mind would appear voluntarily before a tribunal so stacked against him.

Among other retrograde elements, on February 17, 2013, the International Crimes (Tribunals) (Amendment) Act of 2013 amended the law again to allow for the prosecution of “organizations” for their role in the 1971 War of Liberation. (There is some talk that the law may need to be amended anew to enable the prosecution of “parties” in addition to “organizations” if it is to serve its intended purpose). This baldly political move is aimed directly at Jamaat-e-Islami, notwithstanding that its continuity with its liberation-era predecessor is questionable. After the BICT sentenced Abdul Quadar Mollah, the assistant secretary-general of Jamaat-e-Islami, to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity in February 2013, the Act was further amended to allow the prosecution to appeal a sentence or a verdict of acquittal. The amendments were made retroactive. On the prosecutor’s appeal, the Supreme Court converted Mollah’s sentence from life imprisonment to death, a final sentence that does not admit the right of judicial appeal. Despite calls on December 11, 2013, from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to Sheikh Hasina herself, Mollah became the first BICT defendant to be executed. He was hanged on December 12, 2013 after a last minute stay of execution was lifted, on the eve of the upcoming Victory Day celebrations. Indeed, trials and appeals proceeded at a breakneck pace in 2013, apparently in an effort to achieve results in advance of the January 2014 elections.

The BICT has also been mired in corruption allegations. In December 2012, The Economist broke the story, based upon leaked emails and recorded Skype conversations, that a BICT judge had been seeking outside advice on how to rule from the Brussels-based director of the Bangladesh Centre for Genocide Studies, who was also apparently collaborating with the prosecution. The leaked correspondence suggest that the government was pressuring the judges to issue their judgments more quickly. The judge eventually resigned, but the BICT nonetheless responded with threatened contempt of court charges against The Economist’s journalists. Other journalists and media outlets that have been critical of the BICT have also been hit with contempt charges.

Individually, these infirmities are deeply troubling. Collectively, they fundamentally undermine the fairness of the proceedings, especially given that the death penalty is on the table.

The international community initially supported this effort at historical justice, given the longstanding impunity stemming from the war of independence. Human Rights Watch, for example, called the trials an important and long overdue step to achieve justice for victims. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) offered assistance, and the European Union passed resolutions supporting the trials. However, this support soon soured when it was clear that the process had been corrupted and was more political than legal.

The United States’ position toward the BICT has been a guarded one. While acknowledging the need to address the atrocities committed during the war, the United States has also called for proceedings to be free, fair, transparent, and consistent with international and domestic due process standards. The United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, Stephen Rapp (my former boss), has visited Bangladesh five times (most recently in August 2014) in an effort to bring the proceedings better into line with international standards. Before the trials began, he wrote an extensive analysis of the original legislation, which was later leaked to the press, setting forth his concerns and suggestions for improvements. He was later criticized for offering his views, even though they had been solicited by Bangladesh. Some of these suggestions—including the recognition of res judicata and double jeopardy, the right to a fair and public hearing with counsel of the defendant’s choice, placing the burden of proof on the prosecution, and establishing a system of witness protection—were at least partially implemented. Others—having to do with interlocutory appeals, interrogation rights, disclosure obligations on the prosecution, and enabling the participation of foreign lawyers in court—were disregarded. Now that proceedings are fully underway, the prospects of genuine legal reform are dim. The goal now seems to be to keep the defendants alive.

And What of the Birangonas?

The suffering of Bangladesh’s rape victims continues. Indeed, these women were twice made the victim. The first breach of their rights and dignity occurred when they were subjected to mass rape on a staggering scale. Although we will never have accurate numbers, all accounts suggest that tens of thousands of women were systematically kidnapped, raped, and mutilated.  Many did not survive their ordeal.  Those who did suffered a second kind of assault in the aftermath of the war. Rather than being treated with compassion, given medical and psychological assistance, receiving reparations, or getting access to meaningful justice, many survivors were instead silenced, ostracized by their families, and treated as pariahs in their own communities. The only medical services on offer were makeshift abortion clinics staffed by experts who were flown in to conduct late-term abortions. Many “war babies” who were not aborted were put up for international adoption. For many women, the only tangible recognition they received for what they had suffered were the plaques eventually bestowed on them. Although labeled “Birangonas” (war heroines), this supposed honorific turned out to be little more than a cruel hypocrisy. Many survivors continue to live in poverty and shame.

The propaganda value of violence against women has long been recognized. There is now the risk that these women—who for years have been hidden away, ignored, ostracized or worse—will be injured a third time when their legitimate claims for justice will be used to justify a deeply illegitimate process.  They will be trotted out in support of the trials under the illusion that their stories matter. Once the victims have played their part in justifying a flawed process, they will be relegated back to the shadows once again. As criticism mounts about the BICT, Bangladesh’s Birangonas will come to realize that offering them the opportunity to achieve justice for what befell them was never the goal.

Zainab Bangura, 2014 Katherine B. Fite Lecture

I was honored last week to introduce this year’s Katherine B. Fite lecture at the annual IHL Dialogs hosted by the lovely Chautauqua Institution (the 2014 program is here). We’ve covered prior Dialogs on these pages (see here and here).  Fite (1905-1989) was a career State Department lawyer. Among her many achievements, she worked in London right after World War II on detail from the State Department, aiding Justice Robert H. Jackson and others in negotiating and drafting the Charter of the International Military Tribunal. She then decamped to Nuremberg where she helped prepare the case against the indicted organizations. The Jackson Center’s John Q. Barrett and IntLawGrrl founder Diane Marie Amann have written wonderful biographical notes about Fite. (Diane’s talk on Fite at a previous IHL Dialog is available here).  This lecture in Fite’s honor has become a featured event at the IHL Dialogs. In choosing each year’s Fite lecture recipient, a committee of contributors to IntLawGrrls strives to honor trail-blazing women who embody Fite’s spirit, commitment to justice, brilliance, and independence.  Prior recipients include Diane Amann, Leila Sadat, and Karima Bennoune.

This year’s Fite speaker, Ms. Zainab Bangura—the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, embodies Fite’s signature qualities.  (The full text of Bangura’s speech is available here).  Ms. Bangura grew up in the heartland of Sierra Leone, the child of a Muslim cleric and a mother who insisted that her daughter enjoy an education even though she herself could not read or write. Although she originally pursued a career in the insurance industry, the commencement of the war in Sierra Leone inspired her to focus on advocating for peace and democracy. SRSG Bangura thus began her career in public service as founder of

  • the Campaign for Good Governance (CGG) and
  • the country’s first non-partisan women’s rights group: Women Organized for a Morally Enlightened Nation (W.O.M.E.N.).

In 1996, the CGG helped to catalyze the first democratic elections in Sierra Leone after 25 years of single-party rule.

During the Sierra Leone civil war (1991-2002), Ms. Bangura spoke out against the atrocities being committed on all sides. For her acts of denunciation, she was directly threatened with rape and murder. But she refused to be intimidated. Following the war, Ms. Bangura became involved in efforts to prosecute sexual violence as crimes against humanity and war crimes. Given her long experience as a civil society and women’s rights activist, and over the objections of defense counsel, Ms. Bangura was certified by the SCSL as an expert on violence against women and was called to testify about the various manifestations of sexual violence in the armed conflict in Sierra Leone. She wrote a brilliant and sophisticated expert report, distinguishing between Continue reading