Relatos del Tribunal: La primera semana de audiencias del caso Sepur Zarco

Por Dania Rodríguez*

[Read in English]

El camino de la justicia para las mujeres q’eqchí, sobrevivientes de violencia sexual y doméstica en el destacamento de Sepur Zarco finalmente ha llegado al inicio del debate oral y público el 1 de febrero de 2016. Los acusados, detenidos en 2014, son el Teniente Coronel Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón y el comisionado militar Heriberto Valdez Asig.

Los delitos que el Ministerio Público y abogadas querellantes probaran en contra de los acusados son, en el caso del teniente Coronel Reyes: delitos de deberes contra la humanidad en su forma de violencia sexual, esclavitud sexual y doméstica en contra de 11 mujeres; asesinato de tres mujeres (madre y dos hijas) y tratos crueles en contra de dos niñas. Para el comisionado militar Valdez: desaparición forzada de seis hombres, esposos de seis mujeres víctimas y delitos de deberes contra la humanidad en su forma de violencia sexual en contra de una mujer. Para ello se presentaran peritajes antropológicos, históricos, sociológicos, militares y testimonios de las mujeres víctimas y sobrevivientes y de otras personas que presenciaron los hechos.

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Una gran fila de personas esperó entrar al tribunal el 1 de febrero para presenciar la apertura del debate.

El día lunes 1 de febrero, un gran número de personas se hicieron presentes a la Corte Suprema de Justicia desde tempranas horas para acompañar el inicio del proceso. Se pudo apreciar la participación de personas de diferentes regiones del país, así como de organizaciones nacionales e internacionales de derechos humanos; y algunos diplomáticos, entre ellos el embajador de los Estados Unidos, Todd Robinson.

Los jueces que están conociendo el proceso son: Yassmin Barrios, Patricia Bustamante y Gerbi Sical, del Tribunal A de Mayor Riesgo.

Inmediatamente después de la apertura del debate, Moises Galindo, abogado del coronel Reyes Girón, trato de que el proceso fuera suspendido, aduciendo que había algunas acciones legales aún no resueltas, a cada situación presentada los jueces las fueron resolviendo dándolas sin lugar. Como una acción más para retardar el proceso el abogado Galindo se negó a dar sus argumentos de apertura de juicio, con el mismo ánimo su defendido se negó a proporcionar al tribunal los datos personales que le fueron requeridos. El abogado Galindo usó una estrategia parecida en 2013, cuando servía como uno de los abogados defensores del General Ríos Montt.

Los primeros testimonios fueron de hombres que hicieron una descripción de los trabajos que de manera obligada debían hacer en el destacamento, algunos que eran reclutados de manera forzada. Narraron también lo que pudieron observar acerca del trato que en el destacamento tenían hacia las mujeres. Uno de los testigos narró todo lo vivido, señaló al coronel Reyes Girón como el que mandaba en el destacamento y quien ordenó que mataran a siete hombres y luego enterraran dentro de una fosa, con voz muy fuerte y contundente exigió justicia y que los detenidos paguen por lo que hicieron. “Todo lo que digo no me lo contaron, yo lo viví”; se levantó la camisa y enseñó al tribunal las heridas que le propinaron en el destacamento. En ese entonces tenía 12 años.

En el segundo día de audiencias, dio testimonio un señor que tuvo que trabajar seis meses en el destacamento de manera forzada. Al hablar sobre las mujeres señaló: “Todo lo que les hicieron a las mujeres es injusto, les mataron a sus maridos y luego las torturaron de esa manera” (refiriéndose a la violación sexual). Recordó a una mujer que llego al destacamento con sus dos hijas a preguntar por su esposo, y con tristeza explicó al tribunal como a la mujer le hicieron cavar una fosa en donde las mataron y enterraron con sus dos hijas.

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Muchas personas de organizaciones nacionales e internacionales llegaron a escuchar los testimonios.

La primera mujer en dar su testimonio, es una anciana. Ella se sentó calladamente pero con confianza mientras el intérprete le traducía las preguntas al idioma q´eqchi’. Para ella es inexplicable todo lo que les pasó, todo el horror vivido en el destacamento, el desprecio con el que eran tratadas, las terribles ofensas que les proferían. Dice que para ella es muy doloroso contar todo lo que vivieron en el destacamento, pero a pesar de eso explica el gran sufrimiento que les causaron. “Muchas veces fui violada, una de mis hijas también fue violada. ¿Qué va decir la ley de todo esto que nos hicieron? Para eso vine hoy aquí”.

Otra testigo explica que jamás había sentido tanto miedo como el sentido frente a los soldados. De la misma manera, otro testigo recordó: “los soldados decían que llegaban para darnos tranquilidad, pero desaparecían a las personas”.

Era temor y miedo lo que imperaba en las comunidades. Aún así una de las testigos narró como – cansada de los abusos de los soldados – se enfrentó a ellos cuando llegaron a su casa para que les diera comida, cuando ya todo se los había dado, incluso sus animales. La testigo los enfrentó y les dijo que si no les daba vergüenza por todo lo que les hacían.

Cada uno de los testimonios de violencia sexual han sido los más fuertes, por el sentido profundo de dolor que puede escucharse en las voces de las mujeres que en su idioma describen estos abusos terribles a su dignidad. Todas hablan de la gran  tristeza, de la impotencia que sentían frente a los soldados para quienes ellas solo eran un objeto, un ser sin valor. Una de las testigos recordó que estando cansada de todas las violaciones de los soldados fue en busca del teniente coronel Reyes para contarle, pensando que él podía detenerlos. Pero no hizo nada, solo le dijo: “Tú tal vez lo quieres y ya los acostumbraste así”.

Ningún testimonio relata una actitud de apoyo o de protección a las comunidades por parte de los soldados tal como ellos lo habían dicho. Al contrario, cuentan los testigos que los soldados se dirigían a los comunitarios con desprecio e insultos, señalándoles de alimentar a los guerrilleros o de ser parte de ellos.

La mayoría de testigos ha nombrado al teniente Reyes Girón y al comisionado militar Heriberto Asij, que era más conocido en esa época como ‘el canche Asij’.  El teniente Reyes parece tomar notas de todo lo que escucha. Por momentos se le ve sonriendo, como si todo lo narrado fueran inventos, pero quizás sean sonrisas nerviosas que le recuerdan de lo que fue capaz de hacer o consentir. Algunas veces cuando escucha su nombre se le ve ponerse blanco, su semblante cambia. Por otro lado, el comisionado militar Asij parece ausente, desconectado de lo que ocurre, como si no escuchara o no entendiera la gravedad de lo que se le señala, la mayoría del tiempo está con los brazos cruzados, algunas veces solo se acerca a su abogada para decirle algo.

Son más de 30 años los que han tenido que esperar las mujeres de Sepur Zarco para acceder a la justicia, ha sido un largo camino y ellas han tenido toda la fuerza, la valentía, el coraje y sobre todo la dignidad para enfrentar hoy a los responsables. Y no están solas, durante esta primera semana han sido acompañadas por mujeres de varios departamentos del país: Quiché, Chimaltenago, Huehuetenango, Alta y Baja Verapaz, Izabal, ciudad de Guatemala, entre otros. Muchas personas también de otros países están acompañándoles y algunas más también se han manifestado para decirles que no están solas que a la distancia ellas también les acompañan.

En la sala quienes presenciamos, sabemos que lo mínimo que podemos hacer es acompañar a las y los sobrevivientes, trasladar con nuestra presencia el sentir de que admiramos su coraje, su fuerza para estar allí, porque al igual que ellas creemos en la justicia y estaremos vigilantes al debido proceso;  lo que ellas y ellos vivieron no puede quedar en la impunidad.

Como GHRC estamos dando acompañamiento y seguimiento cercano al caso. Estos procesos son sin duda necesarios para la sociedad guatemalteca, porque no puede haber reconciliación sin justicia y sin reconocimiento de los deleznables hechos ocurridos durante el conflicto armado en el país.

*Dania Rodríguez es la Directora interina de la oficina guatemalteca de la Comisión de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala-EEUU.

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Stories from the Courtroom: First Week of the Hearings in the Sepur Zarco Case

By Dania Rodríguez*

The road to justice for the Q’eqchi women survivors of domestic and sexual violence by the Sepur Zarco military outpost finally reached the opening of the trial February 1, 2016. The accused, detained in 2014, are Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Fransisco Reyes Girón and the Military Commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig.

The crimes that the Attorney General’s office and the plaintiff’s lawyers will try to prove against the accused are, in the case of Lieutenant Colonel Reyes: crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence, sexual slavery, and domestic slavery of 11 women; the murder of three women (a mother and two daughters), and cruel treatment of two girls. In the case of Military Commissioner Valdez Asij, the crimes are the forced disappearance of six men – husbands of six of the women survivors – and crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence against one woman. To support the evidence against the accused, they will present testimony from anthropological, historical, sociological, and military experts as well as the testimonies of the women victims and survivors and other people who witnessed the crimes.

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A long line of people awaited entry into the courtroom to witness the opening of the trial.

On February 1, in the early hours of the morning, a large number of people were present at the Supreme Court of Justice to witness the beginning of the trial. People came from all over Guatemala,, and national and international human rights organizations, and diplomats were also present, including the Ambassador of the United States, Todd Robinson.

The judges hearing the case are Yassmin Barrios, Patricia Bustamante and Gerbi Sical, of the Tribunal A of the High Risk Courts.

Immediately after Judge Barrios initiated the trial, Moises Galindo, lawyer to Colonel Reyes Girón, tried to have the process suspended, claiming that there were various outstanding motions that needed to be resolved, however in each case the judges ruled the motions to be without merit. In a further attempt to delay the proceedings, Galindo refused to give his opening arguments to the judges, and in the same spirit his defendant refused to verify his identity when asked. Galindo used similar tacts in 2013, when he served as one of General Ríos Montt´s defense attorneys.

The first testimonies were given by men who described the work they were forced to do at the military outpost and how some were forcibly recruited into the military. They also described their observations of the military’s treatment of the women. One of the witnesses narrated everything he lived through, identifying Colonel Reyes Girón as the commanding officer and the one who ordered the killing of seven men who were then buried in a mass grave. In a strong, forceful voice, the witness demanded justice, and that the accused pay for what they had done. “Everything I say isn’t something someone else told me, I lived it,” he said. He then lifted his shirt and showed to the court the scars from wounds inflicted by the military. He was 12 years old at the time.

During the second day of the trial, a witness told how he was forced to work for the military for six months. Referring to the women, he stated: “Everything they did to the women is unjust, they murdered their husbands and then tortured them in that way” (referring to the sexual violence they suffered). He remembered a woman who arrived at the outpost with her two daughters to ask about her husband, and with great sadness he described to the court how they forced the woman to dig a grave where they then killed and buried both her and her two daughters.

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Many people from national and international organizations were present to hear witness testimony.

The first woman to give her testimony is elderly. She sat quietly but confidently as the court interpreter transled questions into Q’eqchi’. For her, everything that happened at the outpost — the disdainful way in which the women were treated, the terrible offenses against them — is inexplicable. She said that for her it is very painful to tell everything that they lived through at the outpost. Yet she explained the great suffering that they experienced. “I was raped many time, one my daughters was also raped. What will the court say about everything they did to us? That´s why I came here today.”

Another witness described how she had never felt as afraid as she felt around the soldiers. And another commented: “The soldiers said they came to bring us peace, but they disappeared people.”

It was dread and fear that reigned within the communities, but even so, one of the witnesses told of how tired she became of the soldier’s abuses and she confronted them when they arrived at her house to collect food when she had already given them everything she had, including her animals. She asked them if they were ashamed of what they came to do.

Each of the testimonies of sexual violence have been powerful, for the profound sense of pain that could be heard in the women´s voices as they described in their own language the most terrible abuses to their dignity. All spoke about the great sadness and helplessness they felt in front of the soldiers, who saw them only as an object, a being without worth. One of the witnesses told of how, tired of the repeated rape by the soldiers, she went in search of Lieutenant Reyes to tell him, thinking perhaps he could make them stop. He did nothing, saying only: “Maybe you want it and they got used to doing it.”

None of the witnesses described acts of protection or assistance to communities by the soldiers, as the soldiers themselves had claimed. Instead, community members told of how the soldiers spoke to them in a disrespectful and insulting way, accusing them of providing food to the guerrilla forces or participating directly.

The majority of witnesses named Lieutenant Reyes Girón and Military Commissioner Heriberto Asij (known at the time by the nickname ‘el canche Asij’ or “blondie”). Lieutenant Reyes seemed to take notes of everything he heard. At times he looked as if he was smiling, as if everything being told was made up, but perhaps they were nervous smiles as he remembered what he was capable of doing or allowing. Sometimes when he heard his name, he turned white, and his demeanor changed. On the other hand, Military Commissioner Asij seemed absent, completely disconnected from what was happening as if he could neither hear nor understand the gravity of what he is accused of. The majority of the time he sat with arms crossed while at times moving closer to his lawyer to say something.

For more than 30 years the women of Sepur Zarco have been awaiting justice. It has been a long journey and they have had the strength, bravery, courage – and above all dignity – to now confront those responsible. And they are not alone. During this first week they have been accompanied by women from various departments within the country –Quiché, Chimaltenango, Huehuetenango, Alta y Baja Verapaz, Izabal, and Guatemala City among others. Many people from other countries have also accompanied them and even more have expressed support for the women, saying that they are not alone, and they were with them even if they were unable to be present.

Those of us present in the court room know that the least we can do is accompany the survivors, showing through our presence at the trial that we admire their courage and strength for being there, because, like them, we believe in justice and we will remain vigilant of due process; what they have lived through cannot remain in impunity.

GHRC is also accompanying them and following the case. Without a doubt this, and other legal cases, are necessary for Guatemalan society; there cannot be reconciliation without justice and without recognition of the despicable acts that occurred during the armed conflict in the country.

*Dania Rodríguez is the Interim Director of the Guatemala City office of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA.

Guatemala News Update: Jan. 30-Feb. 5

Oscar Mejía Víctores, former head of state accused of genocide, dies under house arrest
Oscar Mejía Víctores died Monday morning at the age of 85. He was the head of State of Guatemala between 1983 and 1986, taking power through a coup d’état that ousted his predecessor Jose Efraín Ríos Montt. Under his leadership, the government forcibly disappeared over 600 people and killed thousand of indigenous. He had been under house arrest since 2011 for accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity during his tenure as the head of State.

Guatemala Supreme Court Rules Against Lifting Congressman’s Immunity
The Guatemalan Supreme Court has denied prosecutors’ request to lift the immunity of Congressman and presidential advisor Edgar Justino Ovalle, on the basis of insufficient evidence. As a public official, he has immunity from prosecution. He has been accused of human rights abuses during his tenure as a military officer during the Guatemalan internal armed conflict war.

First Week of Sepur Zarco Trial Underway
The trial against a military officer and a military commissioner began Feb. 1. The men are charged with crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence, sexual and domestic slavery, as well as forced disappearance of indigenous villagers during Guatemala’s internal conflict. International observers have been blogging daily about the trial at the International Justice Monitor and Breaking the Silence.

Nickel company announces new mining project in Baja Verapaz
The Canadian company CVMR Corporation and Central American Nickel Inc. have announced a partnership to mine 3 million tons of mineral ore each year in Santa Anita located in Baja Verapaz which is considered to be one of the largest, untapped reserves of Nickel in existence. From Guatemala, the ore will be shipped to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to be refined. The project is not far from Rio Negro and the 33 communities displaced and massacred during the construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric dam project. Another nickel mine operating in the neighboring department of Izabal is responsible for acts of violence, including a murder and the gang rape of 11 women by security forces.

New Law for Missing Women Passed in Guatemala
A law was passed on January 29th that establishes the ability to immediately search for missing women. At least 4,500 women have been reported missing over the last two years, and according to Congresswoman Sandra Moran, law enforcement often does not respond immediately when a woman goes missing. This law, the result of the combined efforts of many women’s rights organization, hopes to curb the incidence of kidnapping women for forced labor or prostitution.

Growing concern over treatment of Central American refugees
On Feb. 4, 34 Members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Loretta Lynch to express concern over the treatment and safety of deported Central American families in response to the recent raids.Many of these families may qualify for special accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, protections that were not taken into account during the raids. The Members of Congress call for a suspension of raids, more careful review and screening of cases, among other changes to DHS protocols.

Bill in support of Community Radio up for vote in Guatemalan Congress
The Community Media Bill 4087 aims to legalize community radio within Guatemala. Current telecommunications laws do not allow for the municipalities to create or have access to non-profit licenses for community radios. Without a public radio system, communities cannot easily distribute important news and educational programming information such as emergency disaster relief, voter registration, and public health campaigns broadcast in their native language. Originally introduced to the Congress in 2009, the bill had been stalled up to February 2 when the first reading of the bill took place. The vote on Bill 4087 could take place as soon as February 9th.

International organizations applaud the initiation of the Sepur Zarco trial

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International organizations applaud the initiation of the first trial for sexual slavery and violence during the armed conflict in Guatemala: the Sepur Zarco Case

Guatemala, Washington D.C. and San José, February 1, 2016.- Today the trial begins in the “Sepur Zarco” case of acts of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery committed from 1982 to 1986 by members of the Guatemalan army against Maya Q’eqchi’ women and the forced disappearance of several men. The accused in the case are former soldier Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig.

This will be the first time in the world that a national court has tried a case of wartime sexual slavery case – other cases have been heard in international criminal tribunals – and the first time in Guatemala that crimes of sexual violence have been tried as international crimes. “The Guatemalan judicial system has been a pioneer in investigating complex crimes, demonstrating to other countries that confront similar challenges that it can be done,” stated Leonor Arteaga, a program officer with the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF). Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: January 25-29

Emblematic cases of wartime atrocities move forward in Guatemala Courts

Sepur Zarco: The Case of sexual and domestic slavery against 15 Q’eqchi’ women at the Sepur Zarco military outpost goes to trial on Feb. 1, more than 30 years after the crimes were committed. GHRC’s recent post shares background and resources to stay up-to-date as the trial moves forward.

CREOMPAZ: A recent article from NACLA looks at the recent arrests of 18 former military, most of whom were arrested for their connections with crimes committed at the CREOMPAZ base in Coban. 12 of accused had been students at the US School of the Americas. Another suspect, Congressman Edgar Justino Ovalle of the President’s FCN Nation political party, enjoys immunity from prosecution, a protection recently upheld by the Guatemala Supreme Court.

Evicted Families ask the President to comply with the IACHR measures

Representatives of families of the Polochic Valley who were violently evicted in 2011 have asked President Jimmy Morales to comply with the precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The measures have been in place since 2011 when close to 800 families from 12 communities were violently and forcibly evicted. Only 140 families have been formally resettled, while most continue to live in precarious conditions, some returning to squat on land owned by the sugar cane refinery Chabil Utzaj, who has threatened a new wave of evictions. Families have asked for suspension of all evictions until the adoption of legislation that prevents forced evictions and that in his role as head of state, President Morales fulfills the state’s commitment to grant land and provide decent resettlement conditions for the 578 remaining families waiting for land. Continue reading

Trial Begins Feb. 1 in Historic Sepur Zarco Sexual Slavery Case

After 30 years of impunity, the case of sexual and domestic slavery at the Sepur Zarco military outpost will finally be heard in a court of law on Monday, February 1. This is a landmark case — the first time a domestic court has heard a case on wartime sexual slavery.

GHRC will be observing the trial and you can follow progress via our live tweets by following @GHRCUSA. There should be a link to a live stream available; see GHRC’s facebook and twitter for updates on Monday.

The Sepur Zarco case is the result of extensive work by three Guatemalan organizations that form the Alliance for Breaking the Silence and Ending Impunity, which worked with women victims in the region for years to build the case and provide psycosocial support to the women. A criminal suit was filed in Guatemalan courts on September 30, 2011. Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: January 16-22

Joe Biden’s Visit to Guatemala

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with newly inaugurated Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales during his visit to Central America last week. He congratulated Morales and praised his commitment to fight corruption.

Guatemala tries 11 ex-soldiers over wartime massacres

Guatemalan judge Claudette Dominguez opened a trial on Monday, January 18th of 11 retired soldiers accused of participating in massacres of Indigenous citizens during the country’s 36 year civil war.

This case was described by the district attorney’s office as one of the largest forced disappearance cases in America Latina. Evidence that led to the its opening case includes a report from the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, which reported finding 558 bones and human remains in 83 mass graves on Military Zone 21 (CREOMPAZ) in the Alta Verapaz region, where the detainees were active members between 1978 and 1998. 90 of these remains corresponds to minors, 443 to adults, and three to the elderly, with 22 unknown. So far 97 of the victims have been identified through DNA. Continue reading

Arrests of War Criminals Loom Over Inauguration of New President

President-elect Jimmy Morales will be inaugurated today as Guatemala’s next leader, amid new protests and ongoing uncertainty about how he plans to run the country. Riding a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, Morales—a comedian with no political experience and backed by military hard-liners—achieved an unexpected first-round win in September before defeating former first lady Sandra Torres in the October 25 runoff election.

Although Morales has not yet officially announced who will make up his Cabinet, information has begun to circulate via “leaks” on social media sites. Morales has already suffered a political setback related to his Cabinet when one of his top advisers, Edgar Ovalle Maldonado, was among a group of ex-military leaders accused of crimes against humanity on Jan. 6. For now, Ovalle cannot face prosecution due to his status as an incoming lawmaker, though Attorney General Thelma Aldana has said that her office has asked the Supreme Court to consider lifting his immunity. Continue reading