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  • Women carry signs that read ‘We look to justice, Sepur Zarco case’ in a demonstration against violence against women in Guatemala City in 2012.

    Women carry signs that read ‘We look to justice, Sepur Zarco case’ in a demonstration against violence against women in Guatemala City in 2012. | Photo: AFP

Fifteen Mayan women who were raped and forced to be sex slaves after their husbands were disappeared are demanding justice 30 years after the abuses.

Guatemala is about to launch a landmark trial against former military officers accused of committing sexual enslavement and forced disappearance during the most brutal years of the country’s 36-year civil war.

Here’s what you need to know about the historic trial that is scheduled to kick off Monday, Feb. 1.

1. Fifteen women were sexual and domestic slaves.

Guatemalan soldiers forcibly disappeared 15 men from an eastern Maya Q’eqchi’ village in 1982. It was one of the bloodiest years of Guatemala’s civil war, when dictator Efrain Rios Montt’s military regime was unleashing a scorched earth campaign targeting rural Mayans. After the army disappeared the men, they came back for their wives.

The women were raped and their belongings destroyed. They were taken captive and forced to live at the Sepur Zarco military base, where they were enslaved as domestic servants for the soldiers and systematically raped. The women were forced to labor in 12 hour “shifts,” an abhorrent system that lasted several months.

Though the enslaved shifts ment ended at the end of 1983, 11 of the 15 women were forced under military threat to stay at Sepur Zarco doing domestic chores for the soldiers for six years until the base closed in 1988. The other four women managed to flee to the mountains with their children where they endured painful hardship for years, including suffering the deaths of most of their children.

All of the women, now in their 70s and 80s, bear enormous physical and emotional trauma from the experience. They also faced stigma in their communities for the violence they endured, and did not share what had happened to them for 30 years, finally coming forward in 2011 to seek justice.

The trials accuses two defendants, former Sepur Zarco chief Esteelmer Reyes Giron and former regional military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij, of committing crimes against humanity, including sexual violence and sexual slavery, domestic violence, murder, and forced disappearance. They have been held in remand since 2014 awaiting the trial.

2. The Sepur Zarco case is an internationally historic trial.

The trial of two former military officers for crimes against humanity marks the first time in history that sexual slavery charges are prosecuted at the national level, in the country where the crimes were committed.

The more internationally high-profile case of sexual slavery during armed conflict, the case of Japan’s “comfort women,” was rejected by a Japanese court. Former comfort women subjected to sexual slavery during World War II put Japan on trial in a mock war crimes tribunal in Tokyo in 2000, but the case never officially went to court in the country.

Guatemala’s Sepur Zarco trial could set a new precedent for prosecuting sexual violence in the context of armed conflict, which rights defenders say is one of the most widespread yet underrecognized violations of human rights.

3. It is also a historic trial for Guatemala.

The Sepur Zarco trial marks the first that that Guatemala will consider a sexual violence case as an international crime, which could set a precedent for future trials.

The crime of sexual slavery has been recognized internationally since the early 1900s, when the 1907 Hague Convention prohibited rape and the use of prisoners of war as slaves. The 1926 Slavery Convention elaborated anti-slavery laws with a definition that applies to sexual slavery. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which came into force in 2002, specifically criminalized sexual slavery.

A standing definition of sexual slavery was detailed in the 1998 U.N. Special Rapporteur's final report on contemporary forms of slavery, “Systematic Rape, Sexual Slavery, and Slavery-Like Practices During Armed Conflict,” also known as the McDougall Report.

The report defined sexual slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised, including sexual access through rape or other forms of sexual violence.” More simply put, the McDougall report explained: “Slavery, when combined with sexual violence, constitutes sexual slavery.”

The trial will consider the crimes committed as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Rape was widespread during the civil war. The Sepur Zarco case has the potential to be a precedent-setting trial to break the cycle of impunity for sexual violence in Guatemala.

4. Rape was a concerted strategy in the civil war.

In 1999, three years after the peace accords were signed in Guatemala, the U.N.-backed Truth Commission investigating civil war atrocities found that rape was systematic and widespread during the conflict. According to the commission, “the rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice aimed at destroying one of the most intimate and vulnerable aspects of the individual’s dignity.”

The Truth Commission also found that violence against women, include rape, torture, and murder, was often motivated by their political affiliations, social participation, and ideals, and often combined with other human rights abuses. The report attributed 93 percent of all recorded human rights violations to the state, 85 percent for which the army was responsible.

Despite the countless cases of sexual violence during the civil war, the Sepur Zarco case is the only one that has gone to trial in the country where impunity for war crimes has long remained the norm.

According to the Guatemalan organization Women Transforming the World, sexual violence continues to be inflicted on women by state security forces in conjunction with other human rights violations, such as forced displacement.

5. The victims in Sepur Zarco were targeted for defending their land.

Maya Q’eqchi’ communities in Guatemala have long suffered deep inequality, poverty, and precarious access to land. Before they were disappeared in 1982, the 15 husbands of the victims in the Sepur Zarco case were fighting for legal titles to defend the land they had lived and worked on for years. Because they were standing up for their land rights, they were despised by local large landowners, labeled as leftist insurgents, and made into targets to be silenced.

Land conflicts and unequal ownership are central to the history of Guatemala’s civil war. In 1954, a CIA-backed coup ousted the democratically elected president and reversed the fledgling agrarian reform program that aimed to expropriate idle lands from elite landowners and redistribute land to campesinos. The coup not only triggered more than three decades of civil war, but also helped to lock in one of the most unequal land distribution patterns in Latin America.

Rios Montt’s U.S.-backed bloodshed was nominally a campaign to crush leftist guerrilla uprisings in Guatemala, but in practice many poor Mayan campesinos were targeted as “insurgents” as the military protected the interests of elite landowners.

All photos by Reuters

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