Opening of Landmark Sexual Violence Case in Guatemala

On Monday, February 1, the landmark Sepur Zarco trial opened in Guatemala City before High-Risk Court A.  It is first time that a case of sexual violence related to Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict is being prosecuted in a Guatemalan court. It is also the first time that a domestic court in any country is hearing charges of sexual and domestic slavery charged as international crimes.

The trial began promptly at 8:30 a.m. in the public courtroom of the Supreme Court of Justice. Among those in attendance were many international diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson. Robinson tweeted about the trial, stating, “I congratulate Guatemalan society and the Guatemalan justice system for confronting these issues. It is important that the justice and government institutions work properly.”

The trial is taking place in the same courtroom in which the genocide trial against José Efraín Ríos Montt took place nearly three years ago. As in that case, the Sepur Zarco trial had a rocky beginning, with the defense lawyer for one of the accused repeatedly interposing motions to suspend the trial. But by 10:00 a.m. the representative for the Attorney General’s Office, Hilda Pineda García, read the accusation against the two accused, Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes Giron, former commander of Sepur Zarco military base, and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig, for their roles in mass sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery at the base during Guatemala’s internal conflict. Each of the parties presented preliminary statements, and three prosecution witnesses delivered testimony. The court adjourned at 4:30 p.m. Monday, and the trial continues today at 8:30 a.m.

Déjà Vu 

The trial began with attorney Moises Galindo, who represents Reyes Giron, seeking repeatedly to suspend the trial based on the claim that the presiding judge, Yassmin Barrios, is biased against him. Galindo was one of the lawyers representing Ríos Montt in the 2013 genocide trial and also represents high-ranking military officials accused of international crimes in other cases. He seemed to be following the same playbook as the defense lawyers in the genocide case to stall the proceedings, who delayed that trial by filing various legal motions, many of which were widely criticized as being frivolous. Because of this, last year, the judges moved to excuse themselves from hearing the Sepur Zarco case, but the Supreme Court rejected the request and authorized High-Risk Court A to continue hearing the case. In November, the court moved the start of the trial forward from April to February. Based on this decision and other arguments, the tribunal affirmed the legitimacy of the proceedings and rejected, one by one, each of Galindo’s motions to suspend the hearing.

Opening Remarks

Prosecutor Hilda Pineda García proceeded to read the charges against the two accused. She described the charges against the accused and affirmed that the Attorney General’s Office would present eyewitness testimony, expert witness testimony, and ample documentation to prove the charges. She then laid out the charges against each of the accused, as follows. Reyes Giron is charged with crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence, sexual and domestic slavery against 11 women; the murder of Dominga Choc and her two small children; and cruel treatment of two children. Valdez Asig is charged with 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. The prosecutor said that these crimes were violations of international humanitarian law, and as such, constituted war crimes.

The civil parties, which include Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (Women Transforming the World, MTM), Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (National Union of Guatemalan Women, Unamg), and Asociación Jalok U, then presented their opening remarks. Jennifer Bravo, legal representative of MTM, began by highlighting the historic nature of these proceedings and the opportunity they offer of transformative justice for the women victims. She highlighted that the crimes committed against the women and men in Sepur Zarco took place in the context of an unconventional war in which the army’s counterinsurgency policies, informed by the doctrine of national security, viewed civilians as the “internal enemy.” The strategy of “draining the sea (the civilian population) to kill the fish (the guerrilla)” paralyzed rural communities with “total terror” that resulted in a series of atrocities, including those on trial in the Sepur Zarco case.

Norma Herrera of Unamg described the military’s arrival in the region. She described how the men were disappeared and the women, now widowed, were brought to the Sepur Zarco base where they were enslaved, raped repeatedly for six months and forced to cook and clean for the military; then for the next six years, they were forced to bring tortillas and food and to wash the clothes for the soldiers. When they would go to the base they were repeatedly raped by soldiers.

Moises Galindo refused to deliver opening remarks on behalf of his client, Reyes Giron. The lawyer for Valdez Asig, on the contrary, did make opening remarks. She asserted that though atrocities had occurred, there was no evidence directly linking her client to the crimes. She also asserted that in any case, the militias (the civil defense patrols, or PACS) were not hierarchically dependent on the military commissioners and that a military commissioner was not authorized to give orders.

The defendants were then called to present themselves to the court. Reyes Giron interrupted Judge Barrios on several occasions and eventually said he does not recognize the legitimacy of the court – refusing even to state his name. Valdez Asig, who is 75 years of age, claimed his innocence, saying that he worked in the municipality of Panzos and never worked with the military.

Witness Testimony

The prosecution presented three witnesses. The majority of the witnesses speak the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language, and interpreters were presented to the court. The interpreters translated each question and the witness responses.

The first witness was Pedro Cuc. He testified that he, along with other men from Sepur Zarco, were forced to build the military base. He said that the soldiers knew which women’s husbands had been disappeared and that the soldiers forced the women to cook and clean for them. When asked if he had direct knowledge that women were being raped in the base, he said, “We all knew they were being raped, though I didn’t see it with my own eyes.” He also stated that Heriberto Valdez Asig was the military commissioner of Panzos and that he saw him on multiple occasions at the military base.

Cuc testified that his 16-year old son was disappeared by the military. “My disappeared son would be in charge of the community now, but this is not possible. The people who took him away worked for the government.” He also affirmed that he and the others received no payment for the work they did for the military and that it was impossible to imagine disobeying the military’s orders. He ended his testimony saying: “I can do nothing more but ask for justice.”

The next witness, Juan Maquín Caal, affirmed that soldiers had forced women to work as their domestic slaves. “They forced the women to cook. The women said that they caused them to suffer a lot. They told us that they raped them,” he said. Maquín Call also testified to the forced disappearance of his father, who had been accused of being a guerrilla due to his participation in an organization seeking legal title to their lands. He and his family were forced to abandon their homes and live in the mountains for fear that they, too, would be disappeared. The military continued to persecute them in the mountains. One of his sisters was captured and killed, and at least one other sibling perished. “Those who caused us harm live well,” he said, “while we continue to suffer the consequences.”

The third witness was Rogelio Hüitz Chon. He affirmed that he knows both defendants. “I was a prisoner at Sepur Zarco, and I have the scars to prove it,” he said. Hüitz Choin testified that he was 12 years old when he was detained and tortured at the Sepur Zarco military base. In the course of his giving his statement he lifted up his shirt to show scars, which he said resulted from being tortured and thrown into a pit, breaking two of his ribs. He testified that Asig was responsible for the disappearance of his father. “This didn’t happen only to my father. It happened to many people. He [Valdez Asig] had a lot of power in Panzos.” The prosecutor asked if he could identify Valdez Asig. “Of course I can,” he said. He then stood up and pointed his finger at Valdez Asig. He also stood and identified Giron Reyes as commander of the base. He said he wanted justice, and he said to the judges, “If they offer you money, do not accept it.”

The hearing was adjourned after Rogelio Hüitz Chon concluded his testimony. Proceedings are scheduled to resume this morning at 8:30 AM CST.