In March 2016, I went to Guatemala with Lawyers without Borders Canada (LWBC) to attend the Sepur Zarco case, a landmark trial against two former soldiers involved in several crimes committed during the Guatemalan internal armed conflict in the early 1980's, including the sexual enslavement of twelve women of Q’eqchi Mayan origin.
I had already attended the trial of General Rios Montt, the President of the country at the time, who was condemned for genocide by a Guatemalan tribunal in 2013, though the trial was annulled and he is being retried. Because of my legal practice specializing in aboriginal law in Canada, LWBC asked me to examine these two trials from the perspective of indigenous peoples’ rights, considering that in both cases the victims were mostly indigenous.
The grave violations committed in Sepur Zarco
Sepur Zarco is a small indigenous Mayan Q’eqchi community located in eastern Guatemala. It suffered atrocious violence in the course of the internal armed conflict, particularly during the 1980’s. As in many other of the country's regions, the Mayan Q’eqchi did not have formal land titles, despite the fact that they had occupied their territories since before colonization.
In the early 1980’s, peasants of the Sepur Zarco community had taken steps to obtain recognition for their land rights. Their landowners, feeling threatened by this initiative, would then have called upon the army to suppress these demands, which led to a repression of extreme severity.
Many men from the Sepur Zarco community were abducted by the military and most of them could never be identified, although many human remains showing traces of torture were found near the community.
Widows endured a different fate. Because they no longer had a husband, soldiers considered them to be at their disposal. The women were forced to work at the Sepur Zarco military base, which had been opened in the community, under threat of being killed in turn. They were forced to cook and wash the soldiers’ clothing with their own supplies of food and soap, all the while receiving no financial compensation.
The widows were also raped repeatedly by soldiers, sometimes by many soldiers at once, and in front of their children. These rapes took place in the women’s own homes, alongside the river where they washed clothing, or at the military base. These crimes committed against them have had grave consequences including hemorrhages, spontaneous abortions, and severe psychological trauma.
Trial and judgement
In 2011, the twelve women decided to bring their case before the courts, and in 2012 were called upon to render their testimony in advance before Judge Galvez. In June 2014, following a lengthy analysis of the evidence, two of the people identified during these testimonies were arrested. Lieutenant Reyes Girón and military assistant Valdez Asig were placed in custody for their alleged role in the crimes having been committed at the Sepur Zarco military base.
On February 1st 2016, the trial for sexual violence and slavery as crimes against the duties of humanity under the Guatemalan Criminal Code began before the Court for High Risk in the capital of Guatemala.
On February 26st 2016, after several weeks of testimony and arguments, the court delivered its judgement, finding that the accused were guilty of crimes against humanity related to the domestic slavery and sexual violence. The accused were both sentenced to 30 years of prison for this specific crime.
Heriberto Valdez Asig was also sentenced to 210 additional years of prison for the forced disappearances of seven men and Esteelmer Reyes Girón to an additional 90 years for the murder of three other women.
Judge Barrios made the point of speaking directly to the women of Sepur Zarco emphasizing that the Court had indeed believed them. Confined into silence for many years, when they did decide to speak, the defence referred to them as prostitutes looking to enrich themselves through the trial.
The judgement of February 26th is a historic victory not only for Guatemala but for the world, since it is the first time that a national tribunal condemns its own soldiers for acts of sexual violence committed during an internal armed conflict.
The Guatemalan criminal process allows for reparations to be granted to victims. The hearing to decide on the question of reparations took place a few days after the judgement on March 2nd, before the same tribunal, including Judge Jazmin Barrios.
Reyes Girón was condemned to pay approximately $85,000 CAD to each of the women victim of sexual violence. As for Valdez Asig, he was condemned to pay approximately $42 5000 CAD to the family of each of the seven men having disappeared.
Furthermore, the State of Guatemala was condemned to make reparations in connection with to the violations and to prevent their recurrence. The State must notably: further research efforts to find missing persons; improve health and education services in Sepur Zarco; recognize February 26th as a national day for victims of sexual violence, sexual slavery and domestic slavery; build a monument representing the women of Sepur Zarco’s quest for justice and include mandatory courses in the training of military forces on the human rights of women and the prevention of violence against women. The State must also undertake the translation of the judgment in the 24 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala.
Thirty years after the events which triggered violence against the inhabitants of Sepur Zarco, the latter still do not possess formal land titles. The decision on reparations did not go so far as to attribute such titles to the victims. The tribunal only ordered that the efforts to obtain recognition of property rights initiated by the missing persons be continued by the competent authorities.
Perspectives of the Q’eqchi victims
One of the more interesting moments of my mission occurred as I was spending time with the victims and their interpreters in the house where they were staying. I appreciated seeing them with their faces uncovered, since during the trial they would cover their faces with a shawl to maintain their anonymity. I got to share a meal with them and see them go about their domestic activities, hanging their clothing in the backyard, discussing together and, at times, even laughing. I also realized that they were unilingual Q’eqchi speakers.
The women’s interpreters told me that the women had been uncomfortable upon their arrival at the trial, not knowing the city and not understanding Spanish. However, they indicated that they felt well treated during the judicial process, particularly by the state prosecutors. The support of the public in the courtroom gave them great strength and comfort. They did not seem angered by the fact that press photographers would intrusively fix their camera very close to their face for several minutes.
Unfortunately, the interpreters also told me of a few episodes of racism during the trial. For example, the employees of the Court forbade the victims to use the toilets located beside the courtroom close to the area where they were seated. Demanding explanations, their helpers were told that that the women would “clearly dirty them”. As a result, they had to wait until the lunch break, and then again all afternoon until their return home. Various complaints did nothing to change this, until the President of the Tribunal, Judge Barrios, was informed of the situation and publicly demanded during the hearing that the judicial body respect the victims and allow them to use the toilets.
Use of the Q’eqchi language during the trial.
The Constitution of Guatemala guarantees access to justice in Mayan languages and the victims were indeed able to give their testimonies in Q'eqchi. The victims testified in Q'eqchi in advance before Judge Galvez in 2012 and again during this year's trial.
During the Rios Montt trial, discussions arose between the Court's official Ixil interpreter, the victims' interpreter, and the defence's interpreter. There was vigorous debate on how to translate certain words employed by the victims, as, depending on the meaning they were given, the words might or might not end up supporting the thesis of the defence.
There does not seem to have been a similar level of controversy concerning translation during the Sepur Zarco trial, though certain Q'eqchi words and concepts were amply discussed by expert witnesses.
For example, the concept of "moxok" was explained by certain linguistic and cultural expert witnesses. A woman who has been raped is "moxok", which means soiled, and thereby loses the respect of her community. From the same idea originates the expression "e’xmux limyu’am": they have soiled my life.
During my time at the house where the women were staying, I was able to talk with the interpreters who accompanied the victims for several months. They told me how important it was to discuss at length with the victims to make them feel comfortable and willing to open up about what had happened to them. The victims would not necessarily have told their story to a masculine interpreter or an unknown interpreter met on the opening morning of the trial.
The interpreters also explained the challenge of translating in a literal manner into Spanish the Q'eqchi words used by the victims. It therefore became necessary to explain their real meaning in Spanish during the translation.
For example, the witnesses would use the term "Barz'unleek", which, taken literally, translates to "they played with me", but in fact means "they raped me". Another case is the expression "xnumsink", which literally translates to "they mocked me", but is once again a way of referring to rape. A literal translation would not have been clear enough to prove the acts committed.
Physical, Psychological, Material, and Cultural Impacts
In addition to physical and psychological harm, the women have suffered cultural harm, seeing their lives within the community be destroyed. Indeed, being "muxok" in Q'eqchi culture entails the loss of a woman's worth and her social and spiritual destruction within the Mayan community. The victims have been unable to remarry or recover their plot of land, and have often had to live with their mother, beg to survive, or work for other members of the community as servants.
Fortunately, looking at the broader picture in Q'eqchi territory, the war of the 1980's against indigenous communities does not appear to have succeeded in weakening the use of the Q’eqchi language, as was the case with the Ixils in the Rios Montt trial. On the contrary, I was informed that the use of the Q'eqchi language is on the rise.
It is clear that despite the Guatemalan Constitution’s recognition of customary indigenous law, little effort was made in the Sepur Zarco trial to integrate an indigenous dimension or elements of Q'eqchi law into the judicial process. Considering that one of the accused is of Q'eqchi descent (Valdez Aziz), one could have imagined his being judged by a traditional Q'eqchi tribunal. However, it would appear that the traditional authorities which could have led a customary judicial process were greatly weakened by the internal armed conflict, to the point of even being replaced by military and paramilitary authorities.
Nevertheless, the Court for High Risk allowed victims to express themselves in Q'eqchi, and it appears that the Q'eqchi cultural perspective was taken into account in the judgement and the reparation awarded.