Guatemala’s high-risk court A announced last week that the opening of the landmark Sepur Zarco trial will begin on February 1, 2016, earlier than previously scheduled. The case against two defendants relates to enforced disappearances, mass sexual violence, and sexual slavery committed at the former Sepur Zarco military base during Guatemala’s 36-year conflict. The case will be the first in which a Guatemalan court considers a case of sexual violence as an international crime, and the first time anywhere that a domestic court has weighed charges of sexual slavery.
The trial had previously been scheduled to start on April 11, 2016 but has now been moved up, although no reason has been given for the earlier start date. High-risk court A will hear the case.
Sepur Zarco is a small hamlet located in eastern Guatemala. According to the prosecution, armed forces repeatedly attacked the small village in 1982 and killed or forcibly disappeared Mayan Q’eqchi’ leaders, who had sought land title from the state, provoking the anger of rich landowners who accused them of being associated with the guerrillas. Military forces considered Q’eqchi’ women to be “available” and systematically subjected them to sexual and domestic slavery. They were required to report every third day to the Sepur Zarco military installation for “shifts” during which they were raped, sexually abused, and forced to cook and clean for the soldiers. After this initial period, soldiers reportedly continued to rape the women when they went to fetch water and forced them to work at the military installation. For some victims, the situation lasted as long as six years until the closure of the military installation in 1988.
In its 1999 report, the UN-backed truth commission affirmed that state agents perpetrated rape as a widespread and systematic practice as part of their counterinsurgency strategy. The report stated that the practice amounted to a weapon of terror and a grave violation of human rights and international humanitarian law.
The two men who now stand accused in relation to the Sepur Zarco allegations are alleged former base commander Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes Giron, and former Military Commissioner Heriberto Valdez. They face charges of crimes against humanity related to alleged rape and sexual violence committed against at least 11 Q’eqchi’ women, and charges of enforced disappearance for the disappearance of at least nine men.
Both accused were arrested in June 2014. In October of the same year, preliminary judge Miguel Angel Galvez decided that there was enough evidence to believe that Reyes Giron and Valdez could have played a role in the commission of the alleged crimes, and sent the case for trial. Since then, numerous defense challenges have delayed the start of the trial.
During the trial, which could last around 40 days, the prosecution and civil parties intend to present the testimony of 15 survivors. Other witnesses will also testify before the court, among them military, cultural, linguistic, medical, psychosocial, gender, anthropological, forensic, and other experts. In total, 73 witnesses are scheduled to offer testimony for the prosecution. Additionally, prosecutors are expected to provide evidence from exhumations, including the remains of victims and reports explaining their causes of death.
In his defense, Colonel Reyes will present 18 witnesses and 50 documents to support his claim that he was never assigned to the Sepur Zarco base. He is also expected to claim that military policies at the time forbade sexual violence, and that such crimes simply did not occur.
The defense for his co-defendant, former Military Commissioner Heriberto Valdez, is expected to present at least ten witnesses, as well as letters from individuals attesting to his strong moral character. His anticipated main defense is that, as a military commissioner in Panzos, he was unaffiliated with any abuses at Sepur Zarco.
Mayan Q’eqchi’ women and their supporters have been demanding accountability for the alleged crimes at Sepur Zarco for over six years, even as survivors have faced discrimination, stigmatization, and re-victimization. Their efforts are now culminating in a trial that will shed new light on the nature of Guatemala’s conflict and break new ground in efforts to prosecute sexual and gender-based violence around the world.