Defense Witnesses Testify in Sepur Zarco Trial Ahead of Closing Arguments

The fourth week of the Sepur Zarco trial started on February 22, 2016, with the presentation of several defense witnesses. In the courtroom audience this week were Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchú and UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz. A group of high school students were also present during several sessions. In solidarity with the women from Sepur Zarco, each student carried a red carnation and some held hand-written signs saying “#IAmSepurZarco” (#YoSoySepurZarco). This report covers hearings that took place February 22-24.

Closing arguments and the presentations of the defendants and civil parties were presented on the afternoon of February 24, February 25, and the morning of February 26. By Guatemalan law, the tribunal is required to deliver the sentence the day the trial concludes. Therefore the court will reconvene at 4:00 p.m. (Central Time) on February 26 to deliver the verdict.

February 22, 2016

The morning began with the presentation of witnesses called by the defense. The first witness of the day, and the second defense witness to be called, was former army specialist Julio Cesar López Ligorria, who was responsible for the distribution of food and other supplies for the military installations in Cobán, including the Tinajas military base. He made deliveries of food, including maize, every 15 days to Polochic, Panzós. López Ligorria stated that he had no knowledge of women working or cooking in the military bases during the period under investigation in these proceedings. He also stated that there were only 30 troops at each base and that he delivered three daily rations per soldier. The prosecution asked if there was documentation to support the witness’s claims; none was provided and the witness could not recall the name of the person in charge who signed off on his deliveries. The witness also stated that he did not ever visit the Sepur Zarco military base.

The next witness for the defense was Estuardo Sierra González, an army captain who affirmed that he knew the defendant, Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes Girón, because they were on leave together at Military Zone No. 20 in April 1983. The next witness was army colonel Jorge Alberto Morales Espinosa, who briefly discussed how personnel changes are handled within the military institution. He also mentioned that general orders are emitted every 15 days and that officials usually remain in their positions for 18 months.

Jennifer Bravo, lawyer for Women Transforming the World (MTM), one of the civil parties to the proceedings, informed the court that one of the witnesses she had proposed, sociologist and historian Marta Elean Casaús, was unable to participate in the proceedings due to unexpected medical circumstances. Judge Barrios accepted the expert’s written report and the renunciation of her live testimony in court.

The prosecution then presented the recorded testimony of Manuel Ico. Ico testified that in 1982, soldiers detained him. The soldiers tied up his hands and feet, and during the time he was detained at the military base, they beat and kicked him frequently. He said he was arrested because like other men in the community, he participated in the committee that was organizing to demand legal title to community lands.

Ico mentioned that Domingo Cuc was also detained by soldiers. The soldiers became a permanent presence in Sepur Zarco, he said; at first there were 50 soldiers and later many more. He was forced to work in the Sepur Zarco military base, first constructing the base, then in digging pits and other tasks. The local landowner was Roberto Milla, who he said wore a military uniform and carried a weapon. Ico recalled that one of the military official’s last name was Caal; he was the only one who spoke Q’eqchi.

During Ico’s detention, he was not given food or water. He stated that he and Domingo Cuc were freed when the new commanding officer of the military base came. “It was hard for us to return to our community,” he said. “There were two of us, Don Domingo and me.”

Next was the videotaped testimony of Domingo Cuc. He stated that soldiers detained him on July 4, 1982. According to Cuc, the person in charge was Lieutenant Reyes. Cuc testified that soldiers tied up his hands and feet and beat him savagely, but they did not say why.

“I was there for 15 days suffering beatings and hunger and thirst,” he said. “They only thing they gave me to eat was dog meat…They gave me a glass that was full but it wasn’t water, it was urine…I told them I wasn’t going to drink it. They told me if I didn’t they would kill me then and there.”

Cuc stated he could not identify the soldiers as his head was covered with a sack, but he said the military commissioner was Rafael Xi. “He spoke Q’eqchi’, and he was the one who sent the military to our community. He himself told that to the people who remained in the community.” He also stated that “Canche” Asig was the other person who arrived to their community. “His real name is Heribert Asig. He was the chief military commissioner in Panzós.”

Cuc stated that he helped construct the military installation and did other work for no pay in the military base. When the new commander, Lieutenant Ovalle, arrived from Puerto Barrios, he said, they were told that there would be no more beatings. Cuc also stated that many women were held captive at the military base, they were forced to work; he said he did not know if they had been raped. He also said he saw a woman referred to as Doña Dominga, who was the wife of Santiago Itzep, and who had two small daughters. He said he did not know if she had been raped, he only saw her once and then he was taken to Pataxté.

“We saw that this land was not being utilized, so we started to work the land and plant crops. Then they came and told us this was private property. That is why they hated us,” he said. “ The land belonged to the Milla family. But I don’t believe this is true.”

Defense counsel Ismael García and Fidencia Orozco challenged both of these testimonies, stating that the Public Ministry did not provide a justification as to why they could not present their testimonies in open court, which prevented them from exercising their right to defense and cross-examination. As in previous occasions, Judge Barrios explained that these testimonies were accepted as evidence in a previous phase of the trial and rejected the complaint.

The defense for Reyes Girón then presented as its next witness Rafaela Morataya de Velásquez. He confirmed that he knew Reyes Girón, who was stationed in the Mariscos military base in Puerto Barrios. He also supplied food to the zone and stated that he lived inside the military base. He said he prepared food three times a day for the soldiers. In cross-examination, the witnesses stated that he was never in the Sepur Zarco military base, only the Mariscos military base.

February 23, 2016

The defense for Valdez Asig called three witnesses from Panzós who knew Valdez Asig. Each affirmed that he worked as a municipal police officer, that he was a good neighbor, and that he did not wear a military uniform or carry a weapon.

The first of these, Catarina Yat Caal, stated she met Valdez Asig when she was 16, when she got married and moved to Panzós. She stated Valdez Asig worked as a municipal police officer and was her neighbor. She said that he was a good man who never caused any problems. She said she never saw him wearing a uniform or carrying a weapon. Civil party lawyer Esteban Zelada objected to the open-ended questions asked of the witnesses, stating that the crimes under examination in these proceedings are connected to a specific time and place, and that general questions about the defendant’s behavior were not relevant. Judge Barrios said that these were valid concerns and should be taken into account by the defense. In cross-examination, these defense witnesses affirmed that the defendant was known by the nickname “Canche Asig.” Public prosecutor Hilda Pineda García asked the witness if she was aware that Valdez Asig was referred to as “Canche Asig;” she affirmed that this was his nickname.

The next defense witness called by defense counsel for Valdez Asig was Antonio Sic. He stated that he met Heriberto Valdez when he was 30, after moving to Panzós. He testified that Valdez Asig worked as a municipal police officer and did not carry a weapon. Defense counsel Ismael García asked Sic if there were soldiers in Panzós; the witness said there were, and they wore camouflage uniforms. The soldiers required the men to form civil defense patrols to protect the community. “From what?” asked García. “The soldiers told us that they were coming, they were coming, and we patrolled all the time, but we never saw any one.” Civil party lawyer Norma Herrera, for UNAMG, asked if he was paid for this work. He responded that he was not paid. He also affirmed that Valdez Asig’s nickname was “Canche Asig.”

The third witness, David Chuc Xol, also confirmed that Valdez Asig was his neighbor in San Juan, Panzós, and that he was a municipal police officer. He stated he was not aware if Valdez Asig had been a military commissioner. Defense lawyer for Reyes Girón asked the witness if he participated in the civil defense patrols (PACs). Chuc Xol stated that he did: “I patrolled because once they beat me because I did not go to Cobán [to patrol]. Since he [Valdez Asig] was a police officer, he was obligated to patrol. The commanders ordered that.”

Both defense attorneys Ismael García and Fidencia Orozco reported that they were making efforts to bring the remaining defense witnesses to court. Judge Barrios stated that if they have the addresses, they could send judicial authorities to bring them to court, otherwise they would have to renounce these witnesses. At this point, Orozco renounced three witnesses who she stated were working in Peten and unable to attend the trial; this was accepted by the court. García confirmed that his witnesses would be able to testify in the afternoon. Judge Barrios stated that the defense could present their remaining witnesses in the afternoon or the next day.

After a brief recess, defense counsel for Reyes Girón Ismael García told the court that they were renouncing 13 witnesses because they lacked the financial means to bring them to Guatemala City to testify in court. The court accepted the renunciation of these witnesses and agreed to accept documentary evidence.

February 24, 2016

The prosecution presented its last expert witness, Rafael Eduardo Bran Paz. Bran Paz briefly presented the conclusions of his expert report on the economic reparations that should be provided to the victims in the Sepur Zarco case based on the violations that they suffered, including sexual violence, domestic and sexual slavery, and enforced disappearance of their husbands. This is based on the notion of material and moral reparation: “The victims’ suffering cannot be measured, but based on the principles of equity and justice an estimation of reparation can be made,” he stated. These principles are based on criteria developed by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights.

At this point the tribunal asked if the parties had any new evidence to present. The prosecution and the civil parties stated that they had no new evidence to be considered. Ismael García, defense counsel for Reyes Giron, stated that he did have new evidence to be considered. He then presented a list of witnesses, among them U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Todd Robinson, for consideration to the court to be introduced as new evidence. The list included:

  • Todd Robinson, to explain national security doctrine and its role in counterinsurgency operations; what type of training Guatemalan military received from the United States in 1982 and 1983; and what kind of courses the U.S. military teaches in Panama.
  • Nery Rodenas, Director of the Human Rights Office of the Archbishopric of Guatemala (ODHAG), to explain about the exhumations carried out in this case.
  • Rosalina Tuyuc, of the National Committee of Widows of Guatemala (CONAVIGUA), to discuss the initial denunciation that she filed in 2011 in the Sepur Zarco case.
  • Olga Alicia Paz y Paz, to explain payments for the expert reports in this case.
  • Jorge Nery Cabrera, to explain about the chain of custody of evidence and about the agreements between the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) and the Public Ministry;
  • Fredy Peccerelli, Director of FAFG, to explain the protocols for exhumations and burials and the human remains found in Sepur Zarco and Tinajas.
  • A gynecologist from the National Institute of Forensic Investigation (INACIF) to provide information about sexual violence and miscarriages.
  • A confrontation between Miguel Ángel Caal (the military commissioner who testified as a witness for the prosecution) and Matilde Sub because Sub accused Caal of raping her in 1982.
  • A forensic exam of his client Reyes Girón to determine the date of the scar on his face.

Fidencia Orozco, defense counsel for Valdez Asig, stated that she had no new evidence to present.

After a short deliberation, the tribunal ruled against the request of defense counsel Ismael García to call these new witnesses, arguing that none of them comprise new evidence. Each of these could have been offered at the appropriate procedural phase in this process, and because they do not constitute new evidence, the court rejected the defense’s request. García filed a new appeal insisting on calling these witnesses, which further elaborated upon his reasoning. At this point defense counsel for Valdez Asig stated that she supported her colleague’s appeal to call these individuals as witnesses. The tribunal deliberated for nearly a half an hour, then reiterated its rejection of the defense’s call for these new witnesses.

The court moved on to the next phase of the proceedings: the presentation of the concluding arguments of each of the parties. These were presented during the remainder of the day and continued on Thursday, February 25. The defendants and the civil parties also had an opportunity to address the court on Thursday and on the morning of Friday, February 26. (A summary of the concluding arguments and the defendants/civil parties presentations will be published in a separate post.)

The final sentence will be delivered Friday, February 26, at 4:00 p.m. (Central Time).

Jo-Marie Burt is an associate professor of political science and director of Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada contributed to the research and writing of this report.