Guatemala sets a historic precedent with national conviction for sexual slavery as a crime against humanity

Press release
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FIDH and its member organisation in Guatemala, CALDH (Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights), celebrated an advancement in Guatemalan justice upon issuing the first conviction for domestic and sexual slavery committed in the context of internal armed conflict as crimes against humanity. The ruling was handed down by a national court on 26 February in Guatemala City. The ruling in the case, known as “Sepur Zarco”, establishes a precedent for victims of these crimes, not only in Guatemala, but in the region and the entire world.

“This conviction for sexual violence is a significant victory for the 15 Q’eqchi women after more than 30 years of fighting to obtain justice and truth. They demonstrated immense courage and bravery in claiming their rights despite the cruelty of the crimes and the marginalisation they suffered.”

Karim Lahidji, FIDH President.

The President of the High-Risk Court A in Guatemala ruled that the victims were treated “worse than animals” in a “strategic design to shred the community fabric and destroy its productive capacity”. The events occurred in 1982 and 1983 at a military outpost in the Sepur Zarco community (in northeast Guatemala). Military officers captured indigenous Q’eqchi Mayan women to make them sexual and domestic slaves. The women were forced to cook, clean and wash the soldiers’ clothes. They were also sexually assaulted and forced to take medication to prevent pregnancy. Their husbands, who had legal ownership of the lands they and their ancestors occupied, disappeared and/or were murdered.

In its final report of 1999, the Commission for Historical Clarification highlighted that “the sexual assault of the women, during their torture or before being murdered, was a common practice aimed at destroying the dignity of the person in one of their most intimate and vulnerable aspects. The majority of victims were Mayan women.”

Two retired military officers received sentences totalling 360 years. Retired military officer Colonel Francisco Esteelmer Reyes Girón was sentenced to 120 years in prison for crimes against humanity. He held fifteen women as domestic and sexual slaves, and killed one woman and her two daughters. Paramilitary army officer Heriberto Valdés Asij was sentenced to 240 years of prison for having committed acts of slavery and for the forced disappearance of seven men.

“Despite this significant victory for the victims of human rights violations, there is a lot to be done in the fight against impunity that still persists in international crimes committed in the context of armed conflict. It is a shame that the ex-general and dictator of Guatemala, Ríos Montt, still has not been held accountable and brought to justice.”

Paulina Vega, FIDH Vice President

On 16 March, both the special trial (closed to the public) against Ríos Montt and the ordinary trial (opened to the public) against the other accused, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez will commence; however a significant issue has not yet been resolved. If the special trial is held behind closed doors, the publicity of the other case is violated. However, if the trial is made public, then Mr Montt’s rights will be violated. Holding both trials together would constitute the commission of an illegal act, which could cause both trials to be cancelled. Our organisations have called upon the legal authorities to act independently and impartially to ensure the application of the principles of due process and rights of the victims as set forth in the “Sepur Zarco” ruling.

According to the Commission for Historical Clarification, more than 200,000 persons were murdered during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala that lasted from 1960 to 1996. Additionally 45,000 persons have disappeared, one million persons were forced to move, more than 600 massacres were documented, and 400 villages were completely destroyed.

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