On February 26, 2016, High Risk “A” Tribunal in Guatemala convicted military officers Esteelmer Reyes Girón and Heriberto Valdez Asig of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery against 15 Maya Q’eqchi’ women, as well as several counts of homicide and enforced disappearance. This was the first time a Guatemalan court has prosecuted a case of sexual violence related to the country’s 36-year civil war. The three-judge panel sentenced Reyes Girón to 120 years in prison, while Valdez Asig was sentenced to 240 years.
Human rights activists hailed the judgment as a landmark ruling that demonstrates Guatemala’s commitment to assuring victim’s rights to truth and justice in grave crimes cases and as an important step in the global struggle to end all forms of violence against women.
Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum stated that the Sepur Zarco judgement “dignifies the women victims, and dignifies all of humanity.” Valerie Julliand, representative of the United Nations Development Program in Guatemala, stated that Sepur Zarco judgment demonstrates Guatemala’s commitment to achieving justice for grave crimes cases. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also expressed its satisfaction with the ruling in a press release in which several international rights activists expressed their support for the judgment.
“We celebrate the bravery and the crucial role played by the women in this process of seeking justice, which sets an important precedent for all women victims of violence,” the experts said in the statement. They also exhorted the Guatemalan state “to take all measures necessary to guarantee the security of the victims, the witnesses, judicial authorities, and others who have participated and supported this judicial process.”
In a joint statement, several international human rights organizations also hailed the ruling: “We congratulate the High Risk A Tribunal and the Public Ministry, especially the Human Rights Unit, as well as the Alliance Breaking the Silence and Against Impunity—civil party in this case—for their brave work and for ensuring that the rule of law prevails in this case. We salute the women of Sepur Zarco and hope that this judgment serves as a form of reparation for them and other women who have yet to achieve justice for the atrocities they suffered during the internal armed conflict.”
The president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, who was present during some of the hearings and during the final day of the sentencing, told the press that in his view, “Sepur Zarco is an invalid process, from beginning to end. Undoubtedly the conviction will be annulled by another court.” Méndez Ruiz was one of many pro-military activists who challenged the 2013 genocide verdict against José Efraín Ríos Montt, which was vacated after the Constitutional Court partially annulled the proceedings based on a supposed violation of the defendant’s right to defense. Human rights activists challenged this decision as procedurally improper and substantively disproportionate to the alleged violation.
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.