2 Found Guilty in Historic Sepur Zarco Sexual Slavery Case

On Friday, February 26, 2016 Judge Jassmin Barrios read a summary of the verdict in the historic case of sexual and domestic slavery against Maya Q´eqchi´ women in 1982-83.

The Guatemalan court found both Colonel Esteelmer Reyes and Military Commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij GUILTY of Crimes Against Humanity for abuses that include sexual violence, sexual slavery, domestic slavery, and cruel and degrading treatment, and sentenced them to 30 years in prison.

Additionally, the court found Reyes guilty on murder charges, adding 90 years to his sentence, 30 years for each of 3 victims. The court also found Asij guilty of enforced disappearance, adding 210 years to his sentence, 30 years for each of 7 men. In the parallel civil process for economic reparation, the men were ordered to pay indemnization to the victims and their families.

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The trial took place over four intense week of testimony of survivors and expert witnesses, who detailed the pattern of military operations in the area, and the lasting impacts of the violence suffered by the women.

“The day of the sentence was so important for justice in Guatemala,” said Dania Rodriguez, GHRC’s representative in Guatemala who observed much of the trial. “The verdict was to be read at 4pm, but some people began waiting in line hours before to ensure they could be present in the courtroom.”

As Judge Barrios read the sentence, a palpable silence fell over the crowded room. She detailed the violence the women suffered, reiterating their innocence, and explaining the evidence that confirmed the command responsibility of the two accused.

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“This isn’t only about the victims,” the sentence concludes, “but about all of society. These acts should not be repeated.”

When the judge finished reading, a moment of silence hung in air, before the room erupted in applause, and chants of “Justice.”

“We all felt the gravity of the moment, the long-awaited response of the justice system for these brave women,” said Rodriguez.

The following week, on March 2, the court heard arguments for reparations. Colonel Reyes was ordered to pay a total of 5.5 million Quetzales ($732,700 USD) to the 11 women. Military Commissioner Valdez Asij was ordered to pay a total of 1.7 million Quetzales ($226,500 USD) to the families of the 7 men who were disappeared.

The court also ordered the sentence be translated into 24 Mayan languages, that information about the case be included in school curricula, that monuments be built to honor the women who suffered sexual violence by the army, and that the Defense Ministry give trainings on human rights and violence against women.

GHRC celebrates this important ruling and reiterates our solidarity with the brave women who came forward to tell their testimonies.

Guatemala News Update: Feb. 6-12

Public Prosecutor’s Office presents skeletons as evidence at the Sepur Zarco hearings

In the seventh day of hearings by the judges of the Sepur Zarco case, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented as evidence boxes with the skeletons of 48 people. One expert, Juan Carlos Gatíca, explained where the bones had been exhumed and the analysis that had been done to identify them. Another expert, Óscar Ariel Ixpatá, described the types of wounds found on the exhumed bones, explaining that what they found indicated that the victims had bullet wounds and had been beaten. Furthermore, the victims had been blindfolded, bound, and gagged.

Campesinos March for Political Change in Guatemala

Thousands of Guatemalan rural workers protested in the streets of Guatemala City on Wednesday, blocking traffic to pressure President Jimmy Morales into passing political and economic reforms. The campesino organizations listed a variety of demands, including the respect of the constitutional rights of Guatemalan cities, wage levels, environmental protections, and national sovereignty.  Concerning environmental issues, protesters want an end to projects that displace communities and exploit natural resources. They also criticized agreements with transnational organizations, arguing instead for nationalized energy resources to benefit Guatemalans.

The protesters also demanded justice for those who intimidated community leaders, and the freedom of human rights defenders who had been jailed and criminalized. Furthermore, they called for resolution of 135 land conflicts, and housing guarantees.

Minister of Energy and Mining denied new moratorium on mining and will accelerate process to grant licensing

The Minister of Energy and Mines will not maintain a moratorium on new mining licenses and instead seeks to speed up the process of granting requests for licenses. The past two administrations had abstained from granting new licenses. The new officials argue that these projects can help to reduce the high levels of poverty within the country if attention is paid to social and environmental issues, explained the Vice-minister of Sustainable Development, Roberto Velasquez. In contrast, communities who live next to resource extraction projects such as mines, as well as hydroelectric dam projects have almost unanimously opposed them as environmentally harmful, socially destructive, and as driving factors of increased violence and repression in their communities. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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

[Abajo en español]

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

2014 State Department Human Rights Report Identifies Numerous Challenges for Guatemala

By Jason Mann, GHRC Summer 2015 Intern

rio_negro_04_smallOn June 25, 2015 Secretary of State John Kerry announced the release of the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014. This includes the Guatemala 2014 Human Rights Report, which details some of the many human rights violations and concerns that GHRC works to prevent and document. The report is broken down into seven sections, ranging from concerns for the respect of physical rights to the protection of workers’ rights, and provides a brief look into some of the many injustices that Guatemalans faced last year:

Militarization and security

  • The military was used for internal security purposes and was involved in serious abuses including kidnapping, drug trafficking, extortion, and femicide.
  • Members of the National Civil Police (PNC) were involved in various incidents of abuse and corruption, and were severely undertrained and underfunded.
  • In June 2014, former PNC Chief Erwin Sperinsen was sentenced to life in prison in a Swiss court for the killing of one inmate and involvement in six other homicide cases in 2006.
  • Also in June police arrested three PNC officers for the raping of a minor while she was being held in a juvenile detention facility in Quiche.
  • The Office of Professional Responsibility (ORP) accused nine PNC officers of homicide as of September 2014.
  • The PNC’s Office of Professional Responsibility reported 1,104 complaints of abuse filed against police forces in the first nine months of 2014.

Truth and Justice

  • Former Dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide in May 2013, but the Constitutional Court overturned the conviction on procedural grounds, and as of the end of 2014 the case had not restarted.
  • Former army officers Esteelmer Reyes and Heriberto Valdez were arrested for murder, forced disappearance, and sexual abuse while they were in charge of the Sepur Zarco military base in the department of Izabal during 1982-1983.
  • Judicial branch workers had been the victims of 171 threats and acts of intimidation against them by the end of September of 2014.
  • Trials were almost always held in Spanish although many indigenous people charged with crimes do not speak the language.

Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: March 30 – April 10

Hudbay Minerals/CGN Former Head of Security on Trial in Guatemala for Mining-related Violence

The criminal trial against the former security chief of mining company Hudbay Minerals/CGN, Mynor Padilla, began on April 8 in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. Padilla is charged with the murder of Aldofo Ich Chamán and the wounding of at least ten others who opposed Hudbay/CGN’s nickel mining project in El Estor.

Unfortunately, this is only one example of the violent encounters provoked by extractive projects in Guatemala. Hubday Minerals is already facing lawsuits in Canadian courts for other crimes related to their activities in Guatemala.

Human Rights Defender Assassinated Near Tahoe Resources Mine

On Sunday, April 5, Telesforo Pivaral — a community member from San Rafael Las Flores — was murdered. Pivaral had been a member of the Committee in Defense of Life and Peace of San Rafael Las Flores, and was active in the resistance to the “El Escobal” mining project.

Oxfam’s office in Guatemala and 23 other organizations are joining together to call for the Guatemalan government to investigate the attack. Continue reading