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.
INDIGENA MUJER DE SEPUR ZARCO
víctima de violencia sexual,
Sepur Zarco tu pueblo alla donde la montaña vive
el doloroso conflicto de balas y muertes.
Treinta y seis años marcados en la historia
que el estado violo el derecho de tus vientos,
el derecho asesinado en el pueblo Maya.
Vos mujer herencia de la sangre
como Maya fuiste maltratada,
Violada y esclavizada para satisfacer el placer sexual
de animales que pregonan ser humanos,
ante el ojo de organizaciones
voces que gritan contra la impunidad.
Ante el acoso en más de cinco décadas de oscuridad,
antes de nacer esa alianza que juro romper el silencio
que se revuelca en esa inmunda impunidad,
para dar al derecho que vive en la libertad
de mujeres sangre originaria siempre maltratadas.
Sepur Zarco es donde se levanta la precedencia
del exterminio de hombre y mujer Maya,
aquí en las fronteras mismas de Izabal
Y la alta Verapaz, estuvo ausente la campana del duelo,
Cuando seis destacamentos militares plantaron la muerte.
Plantaron la tortura que fue siempre el camino al exterminio,
regalo de las democracias a nuestros pueblos originarios
que dicen han sido gobernados con respeto y libertad,
una farsa que vomita la mentira.
El ejército trajo el silencio de la muerte,
trajo la esclavitud a las viudas de la sangre verdadera
hoy desaparecida en el perdido de las cenizas.
Es aquí donde nació la esclavitud colectiva
Es aquí donde nació la esclavitud individual.
Lista a repartir placeres sexuales y ser sirvientas
por meses en horas de esas que trabajan sin derecho a pago.
2011 vos mujer te apareciste ante tribunales
Que según supe escucharon tu queja, nació la conciencia,
Y aceptaron que fuiste víctima del crimen,
Fuiste víctima de violencia, fuiste la prostituta forzada
Y así atender los asquerosos deseos sexuales
Documentados delitos de autores militares.
Y hasta ahora 2016 en febrero tu grito sigue perdido en los tribunales.
Sigue como un olvido que nadie recuerda su apellido.
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