Court to Rule on Appeal of Historic Sepur Zarco Sexual Violence Verdict

On July 19, the High Risk Appellate Court in Guatemala will announce its resolution on three appeals presented by two former military officials convicted last year in the historic Sepur Zarco sexual violence case. The appeals seek to overturn the February 26, 2016 verdict by High Risk Tribunal A, presided over by Judge Yassmín Barrios.

The trial court found Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes Girón, former commander of Sepur Zarco military base, and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig, guilty of all charges, sentencing them to 120 and 240 years respectively.

The trial court sentenced both military officials to 30 years in prison for crimes against humanity against 15 women who were the victims of sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery. In addition, the tribunal found Lt. Col. Reyes Girón responsible for the murder of Dominga Cuc and her two daughters, sentencing him to an additional 30 years for each of the victims, for a total sentence of 120 years.

The court further found Valdez Asig responsible for seven counts of enforced disappearance. Those who were disappeared were the husbands of the women victims of sexual violence in this case. The court imposed a sentence of 30 years for each of the seven victims. In addition to the 30-year sentence for crimes against humanity, Valdez Asig’s total sentence is 240 years.

The defense lawyers for the convicted military officials filed three different appeals against the 2016 verdict. Moises Galindo, one of the lawyers for Lt. Col. Reyes Girón, filed an appeal alleging that the proceedings violated his client’s right of defense by denying him the opportunity to cross-examine the survivor-witnesses during the proceedings.

As International Justice (IJ) Monitor reported during the Sepur Zarco trial, pre-trial judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez ruled in favor of the petition by the Attorney General’s Office and the civil parties asking that the pre-trial testimony of the women survivors be video recorded and that the women’s recorded testimonies be presented in court. This was meant to protect the women’s identities and prevent their revictimization by having to testify in open court. Defense counsel was offered the opportunity to cross-examine the women at these pre-trial hearings. Galindo had not yet been hired as Reyes Girón’s lawyer. During the public trial, the tribunal rejected Galindo’s repeated objections to his inability to cross-examine the women survivors.

The appeal filed by Galindo also asserts that his client’s right of defense was violated because of the enmity existing between himself and two members of the tribunal, presiding Judge Yassmín Barrios and Judge Patricia Bustamente, who were members of the tribunal that convicted Ríos Montt of genocide in 2013. Galindo was part of Ríos Montt’s legal team. He sustains that because of this antagonism, the tribunal was not competent to hear the Sepur Zarco case.

The second appeal, presented by lawyer Fabiola de León Adrino on behalf of Reyes Girón, echoes the arguments presented in Galindo’s appeal but adds two additional elements: it asserts that the military officials should benefit from the 1986 amnesty law and that the statute of limitations for murder should be applied in this case.

A third appeal, filed by a public defender in representation of Valdez Asig, includes similar arguments to the appeal filed by Galindo, including the claim that the trial court was not competent to hear the case because of the enmity between Galindo and the trial court judges. In addition, it asserts that two of the prosecution’s expert witnesses lacked sufficient expertise to testify. One of the experts objected to is Rita Segato, a world-renowned expert on gender violence, who testified in the Sepur Zarco proceedings on February 18, 2016. Segato affirmed in her testimony that the sexual violence exercised against the women of Sepur Zarco and their sexual and domestic enslavement were all part of a war strategy.

Paula Barrios, executive director of Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (Women Transforming the World) and one of the lawyers representing the victims in the Sepur Zarco case, believes that the appeals lack any legal foundation. With regard to the question of the cross-examination of the survivor-witnesses, Barrios said, “The evidence was admitted by the corresponding court. Moreover, the trial court complied fully with all procedural guarantees and ensured due process.”

Regarding the question of the 1986 amnesty provisions, Barrios said that other military officials accused of grave violations of human rights have sought to have the amnesty law applied to their cases, but the Constitutional Court has routinely dismissed those appeals. The 1996 Law of National Reconciliation repealed the 1986 amnesty law, and while it provides for amnesty for political crimes, it explicitly excludes the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and torture. Moreover, Barrios says, several international conventions have established that amnesties are not applicable in cases of crimes against humanity.

As for the statute of limitations for the crime of murder, Ada Valenzuela, executive director of Union Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (National Unity of Guatemalan Women, UNAM-G), who also represents the victims in the Sepur Zarco case, says that Article 115 of the Guatemalan Constitution states that any public official who commits a crime shall receive double the penalty; therefore, even if the statute of limitation were applicable, in this case, the crime of murder can still be prosecuted.

The claim by Galindo that there is ill will with the judges of High Risk Tribunal A could also prove difficult.  Judges Yassmín Barrios and Patricia Bustamente both recused themselves from the Sepur Zarco proceedings when the case was initially transferred to them  by pre-trial Judge Gálvez, on the same argument – enmity with lawyer Moises Galindo. However, the Supreme Court of Justice rejected the recusal and ordered the High Risk Tribunal A to hear the case and proceed with the public trial. In response, Galindo filed a protective measure (amparo) before the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court did not grant Galindo a provisional amparo, but nor has it emitted a final resolution on the matter.

According to Valenzuela, Galindo is pursuing a typical strategy of malicious litigation, whose intent is to secure an amparo from the Constitutional Court that would effectively wind the clock back on the proceedings to the moment of the naming of the competent tribunal. That would mean a total do-over of the Sepur Zarco trial. This was the same strategy employed by the defense counsel in the genocide trial against Efraín Ríos Montt and José Rodríguez Sánchez. “The appeals should be denied categorically,” Valenzuela told IJ Monitor, “and the Appellate Court should ratify the Sepur Zarco verdict, which is an historic precedent in the struggle for women’s rights and justice.”

The hearing on July 19 is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. Guatemala time. It will be an important barometer of the status of grave crimes cases in Guatemala.

Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada is a human rights activist, archaeology student at San Carlos University, and civil party in the Military Diary case.