Landmark Rape Convictions of Militaries in Guatemala

Mayan Women pictured at the trial ©CNN

Mayan Women pictured at the trial ©CNN

Two former militaries were found guilty by a Guatemala court of murder, rape and sexual enslavement of indigenous women and were respectively sentenced to 240 and 120 years imprisonment.

The ruling is the first successful prosecution for sexual violence committed during Guatemala’s troubled decades. The facts date back to the 1980s, during Guatemala’s 36 year-long civil war that only ended in 1996 with the signig of Peace accords. At the time, armed forces repeatedly attacked the village of Sepur Zarco and Mayan communities were caught in the opposition between the army and the leftist rebel groups. As a result, several men were killed and soldiers considered the women as being “available”. It was reported that women were required to report every third day to the base for “shifts” during which they were raped, sexually abused, and forced to cook and clean for the soldiers.

Former Lt. Col. Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Giron, who was the commander of the Sepur Zarco military base, and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij were found guilty of holding 15 women in sexual and domestic slavery and for killing one woman and her two daughters.

“This is historic, it is a great step for women and above all for the victims,” said Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, who attended the hearing.

Guatemalan President Resigns Amid Corruption Scandal

Otto Perez Molina

Otto Pérez Molina

Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina has resigned days before the elections, after the attorney general obtained a warrant for his arrest amid a corruption scandal.

Mr Perez Molina’s resignation comes just days before Sunday’s presidential election, in which he was barred from standing under constitutional rules.

On Tuesday, Congress stripped him of his immunity from prosecution, and on Wednesday the attorney general, Thelma Aldana, requested an arrest warrant for Pérez Molina.

Aldana later said a judge had issued the warrant on suspicion of illicit association, fraud and receiving bribe money, relating to a widespread customs fraud ring.

The corruption scandal, uncovered by prosecutors and a UN commission investigating criminal networks in Guatemala, involves a scheme known as “la linea”, or the line, in which businesspeople paid bribes to avoid import duties through the customs agency.

Protesters, business leaders and Catholic church officials had called for Pérez Molina to resign in recent weeks as the investigation of the customs fraud ring grew wider and hit more officials. Pérez Molina was steadfast in his plan to stay, until the judge’s order. He has maintained his innocence.

Guatemalan Ex-Police Chief’s Life Sentence Upheld on Appeal

Erwin Sperisen

Erwin Sperisen

On 12 May 2015, Erwin Sperisen, former head of Guatemala’s National Civil Police, was found guilty of 10 murders by the Criminal Division of the Court of Justice in Geneva, Switzerland. Sperisen thereby lost his appeal against a life sentence for killing prisoners in his home country.

On 6 June 2014, Sperisen had been sentenced to life imprisonment for involvement in extra-judicial killings of seven inmates committed during a police raid on the El Pavon prison outside Guatemala City in 2006.

Sperisen fled to Switzerland in 2007, and as a dual Swiss-Guatemalan citizen, he could not be extradited to Guatemala from Switzerland.

On appeal, the Court of Second Instance re-examined the part Sperisen played in the extrajudicial executions of 10 prisoners during operations carried out by the Guatemalan police. The Swiss Criminal Court upheld his conviction for the 7 inmates of El Pavon prison and also found the former police chief guilty of the murder of three prisoners who had escaped from El Infirnito jail the year before.

Given the seriousness of the acts, the number of victims and the lack of empathy and awareness displayed by the former Chief of the Guatemalan National Police, the judges in the Geneva Criminal Court considered that only a sentence of life imprisonment would be likely to punish the accused.

TRIAL, a Geneva-based NGO called the confirmation of Sperisen’s life sentence a victory for the fight against impunity. According to the Director of TRIAL “[T]he sentence passed is proof that the justice system is able to prove the involvement of the State and its representatives in serious human rights violations, and bring them to justice. We hope that Erwin Sperisen’s conviction will set an example, particularly to the Spanish authorities, who must now prosecute his immediate superior, former minister Carlos Vielman, for the same acts.”

Sperisen was detained in 2012, two years after Guatemala issued arrest orders over the killings at the El Pavon prison.The orders followed an investigation by the UN-backed international commission against impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

Movie About Guatemala’s First Female Chief Prosecutor

Claudia Paz y Paz

Claudia Paz y Paz

The documentary ‘Burden of Peace’ tells the impressive story of Claudia Paz y Paz, the first woman to lead the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Guatemala. The country that has been ravaged for years by a devastating civil war, in which nearly 200,000 Mayan Indians were systematically massacred, is today one of the most violent countries in the world. Claudia Paz y Paz starts a frontal attack against corruption, drug gangs and impunity and does what everyone had hitherto held to be impossible: she arrests former dictator Efraín Rios Montt on charges of genocide. His conviction becomes the first conviction for genocide in a national court in the world history.

Since her first year in office, Claudia Paz y Paz gave acces to filmmakers of Framewerk, Joey Boink and Sander Wirken. It resulted in an intimate glimpse into the life of a woman who wants to change her country and therefore brings immense sacrifices.

There will be a film-screening followed by Q&A with film-maker Sander Wirken and Guatemalan Human Rights Defender Omar Jeronimo. It will be held on Monday 22nd June, from 6pm-8pm, at Doughty Street Chambers, 53-54 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LS.

For more information about the movie, including the trailer, click here.

The Net is Closing in on Guatemalan Criminals

by Sander Wirken

Former Guatemalan national police chief Sperisen sentenced to life in Switzerland

Erwin Sperisen

Erwin Sperisen

An accused standing trial for the murder of ten people is not a common occurrence in Swiss criminal courts. Erwin Sperisen, a former Guatemalan police chief (2004-2007) and dual Guatemalan-Swiss national, stood trial for just that this year. On 6 June 2014, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the extrajudicial execution of seven prisoners in a campaign of ‘social cleansing’ directed by the national police leadership. The ruling marks an important victory for justice and signals that fleeing to another country is no longer a guarantee of impunity for Guatemalan criminals.

During the Oscar Berger government (2004-2008), a parallel structure emerged in Guatemala within the Ministry of the Interior and the National Civilian Police, led by the police top leadership and the Minister of the Interior. Amongst other activities, the structure dedicated itself to ‘social cleansing’, i.e., ridding Guatemalan society of what those involved in that process regarded as ‘undesired elements’.

The charges against Sperisen revolved around two incidents. First there was the case of three inmates that had escaped from the El Infiernito prison in October 2005. The escapees allegedly resisted their arrest and died in an armed confrontation with police officers. The bullet impacts, witness testimonies and other evidence were inconsistent with that scenario however and pointed rather at the escapees having been executed, after which the crime scene had been altered to resemble an armed confrontation. The Swiss court was convinced that the three escapees had indeed been extra-judicially executed. However, the court was not convinced beyond any reasonable doubt of Sperisen’s personal involvement in the killings, as Sperisen had not been present at the scene of the crime and no clear evidence linking him to the material authors of the executions was provided. Continue reading

The Guatemalan Genocide Case and the Upcoming Amnesty

By Sander Wirken – PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam, Sander Wirken is making the documentary Burden of Peace about Guatemala’s former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz. Watch the embedded video to find out how you can become part of that project.

A Guatemalan trial court wrote history on 10 May 2013 when it convicted former president general Efraín Ríos Montt to 80 years imprisonment for his role in the genocide and in war crimes committed by the army. It was the very first time that a national court convicted its own former head of state for genocide. Lawyers all over the world applauded Guatemala for the apparent achievement of its national judicial system. Ten days after the conviction, however, the Constitutional Court declared that a procedural error had been committed. The procedural error in question did not amount to a breach of a constitutional right and should hence have been addressed by an Appeals Chamber and not by the Constitutional Court, as one of the dissenting opinions in the 3-2 majority decision pointed out. But the majority opined differently and the conviction was declared invalid on that technicality.

What followed was a concerted backlash to all forces that had supported the genocide trial.

Continue reading

Event: Lecture on Genocide Prosecution in a National Court

Asser InstituteDate: Wednesday 9 April 2014

Venue: T.M.C., Asser Institute, R.J. Schimmelpennincklaan 20-22, 2517 JN Den Haag

Lecture: “Genocide Prosecution in a National Court: Guatemala’s Rios Montt Trial in Latin American Context

Speaker: Naomi Roht-Arriaza, Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

SCL Lectures are public and free of charge. Registration is not necessary, seats are available on a first-come-first-served basis.