Guatemala breaks new ground in sex-slavery prosecution

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Guatemala's judiciary experienced an unprecedented event on February 1: the beginning of a trial against two former military officials accused of committing international crimes, including sexual violence, sexual slavery, and domestic crimes against humanity.[1] The case[2] is believed to be the first in history in which a national court has taken on a case of wartime sexual slavery, the sort of case typically heard by the International Criminal Court in Den Haag, Netherlands.[3] By trying this case in a national court, Guatemala has the opportunity “to address its [own] historic failure[s]”[4] and give its citizens justice.

This is the first prosecution relating to the sexual violence to come out of the county’s thirty-six-year internal armed conflict.[5] Most of the alleged crimes were committed in the 1980s, during the worst part of Guatemala’s land-title conflicts.[6] The crimes took place during the presidency of José Efraín Ríos Montt,[7] whose government had a policy of eliminating the Mayan citizens protesting and demanding property rights.[8] The military was summoned, killing and “disappearing” Mayan men and forcing many of their widows to move near the military bases.[9]

Guatemala Supreme Court
Guatemala's Supreme Court, whose building is shown here,
established a system of "high-risk courts" in 2009 for
prosecutions in which witnesses, attorneys, and judges are
thought to be at risk of violence or intimidation.
(Via Wikimedia Commons)

Although social stigma forced many of these women into silence, grassroots organizations helped the survivors speak out at the “Tribunal of Conscience” on violence against women in 2010.[10] In 2011, criminal charges were filed against base commanders Lt. Col. Esteelmer Reyes Girón and Heriberto Valdéz Asig.[11]

This case is being presented before the Guatemalan High-Risk Court A.[12] High Risk Courts in Guatemala “have the authority to hear cases that pose a serious risk to the judges, the prosecutor, the defendant(s) and the defense attorney, or anyone else involved in the case.”[13] Many international diplomats were in attendance, including U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson, who tweeted “I congratulate Guatemalan society and the Guatemalan justice system for confronting these issues. It is important that the justice and government institutions work properly.”[14]

The Attorney General’s representative, Hilda Pineda García, read the allegations against Reyes Girón and former military commissioner Valdéz Asig.[15] The prosecution argues that certain rural Mayan women were forced to provide military men at their nearest military outpost with domestic services, such as washing, cooking, and cleaning.[16] These women were also subjected to sexual assault and rape.[17]

As a signatory of the U.N. Convention Against Torture[18] (“Convention Against Torture”), which it ratified on January 5, 1990, Guatemala has a legal obligation to punish acts constituting torture “by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.”[19] “Torture” is

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as . . . punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed . . . or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity . . . .[20]

If the allegations against the accused are proven, both may face punishment for international crimes. Reyes Girón is facing charges of “crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence, sexual and domestic slavery against eleven women; the murder of Dominga Choc and her two small children; and cruel treatment of two children.”[21] The charges against Valdéz Asig include the “forced disappearance of six men, who were the husbands of the female victims of sexual violence; and crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence against one woman.”[22] The Guatemalan prosecutor stated in her opening statement “that these crimes were violations of international humanitarian law, and as such, constituted war crimes.”[23]

Leonor Arteaga, a program officer with the Due Process of Law Foundation, expressed that “[t]he Guatemalan judicial system has been a pioneer in investigating complex crimes, demonstrating to other countries that confront similar challenges that it can be done.” [24]

[1] International Organizations Applaud the Initiation of the First Trial for Sexual Slavery and Violence During the Armed Conflict in Guatemala: The Sepur Zarco Case, Int’l Ctr. Transitional Just., [] [herinafter Int'l Ctr. Transitional Just.]; Naomi Roht-Arriaza, First national trial for sexual slavery as an international crime opens Feb.1 in Guatemala, IntLawGrrls, para. 1 (Jan. 31, 2016), [].

[2] The case is often referenced as the “Sepur Zarco” case, named after the hamlet in eastern Guatemala where the alleged crimes were committed. Roht-Arriaza, supra note 1, paras. 1-3.

[3] Int'l Ctr. Transitional Just., supra note 1, para. 2.

[4] Id. at para. 8.

[5] Jhonathan F. Gómez, The Sepur Zarco Case: Maya Q’eqchi’ Women Survivors of Sexual Violence in Guatemala Demand Justice, Upside Down World, para. 1 (Feb. 13, 2016), [].

[6] Roht-Arriaza, supra note 1, para. 2.

[7] Id. para. 3-4.

[8] Id. para. 2.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. para. 3 (internal citations omitted); see Gómez, supra note 4, para. 8 (“The Breaking the Silence and Impunity Alliance (Alianza Rompiendo el Silencio y la Impunidad), which consists of three grassroots organizations, came together . . . to accompany the legal proceedings of the women survivors.”).

[11] Roht-Arriaza, supra note 1; Gómez, supra note 5, para. 11. Valdéz Asig was a military commissioner, a former soldier who maintained some military duties and authority. See Guatemala: Information on military commissioners and human rights abuses, U.S. Bur. Citizenship & Immig. Servs. (Jul. 29, 2002), available at [].

[12] Jo-Marie Burt, Opening of Landmark Sexual Violence Case in Guatemala, Int’l Just. Monitor, para. 1 (Feb. 2, 2016), [].

[13] The Guatemalan Court for High Risk Crimes, Ctr. Just. & Accountability [].

[14] Burt, supra note 12, para. 2 (internal quotation marks omitted).

[15] Id. para. 3.

[16] Roht-Arriaza, supra note 1, para. 1.

[17] Id.

[18] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment art. 4(2), Dec. 10, 1984, 1465 U.N.T.S. 85, available at [].

[19] Id. art. 4(1).

[20] Id. art. 1(1).

[21] Burt, supra note 12, para. 5.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Int'l Ctr. Transitional Just., supra note 1, para. 2.

Posted by Melodie Pellot-Hernandez on Mon. February 22, 2016 5:15 PM
Categories: Human trafficking, Insurgency, International Criminal Court, International Human Rights, Latin America, Refugees/Asylum

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