February 4, 2016
By Fabienne Doiron
Yesterday the third day of the Sepur Zarco trial began like the others, waiting in (a much shorter) line to be let through the courthouse gates while trying to ignore the man across the street in a camouflage baseball cap and a t-shirt with the word “Los Guatemaltecos No Somos Genocidas!” (We Guatemalans aren’t genocide perpetrators) written across the back. He’s been pacing up and down the sidewalk opposite from the courthouse every morning this week, yelling into his megaphone, insisting that human rights defenders only defend “delinquents,” that the witnesses in the Sepur Zarco case are lying, being paid to testify (citing absurd amounts), and—repeating an age-old rape myth—implying that the complainants were ‘prostitutes’ who later regretted what they had done and are now claiming that they were raped.
Today, however, in addition to this man’s verbal assaults, someone had also hung genocide-denying banners from the court’s gates. Once inside, a friend told me that this is the same man that was trying to provoke supporters on their way into the hearings around the CREOMPAZ case in mid-January, in which 14 former high ranking military officials were arrested, and 11 later indicted, for crimes against humanity and forced disappearance of close to 600 people who were found in clandestine graves in a military base in Alta Verapaz.
Knowing that these types of cases often take a very long time to work their way through the courts system, the civil society organizations involved in this case as joint complainants (whom, in the Guatemalan legal system, are allowed to participate in the prosecution) successfully petitioned the court to allow the women survivors (many in their 70s and with failing health) to give their declarations in pre-trial proceedings in 2012. The first of these testimonies were heard on Wednesday.
Defense lawyers attempted to argue that the women who are able to be in court at present time should be testifying again so that the defense can properly interrogate them. The judge however, reminded the defense that they had had the chance to object to this evidence and request ‘live’ testimonies during pre-trial hearings, and that the defense could not object to evidence that had already been admitted at this stage in the process.
The three video declarations that we heard on Wednesday were from women who had fled to the mountain after their husband had been disappeared and they had been raped by soldiers in or near their houses. The second complainant told the court in her declaration that “They [the soldiers] kept close watch on those of us who no longer had husbands” and that she was raped in front of her four-year old son when soldiers followed her when she was out to get water. While these women were not forced into domestic and sexual slavery at the Sepur Zarco military base like other complainants in the case were, the alternative was years of extreme hardship and suffering in the mountains: all three spent six years in the mountain where they lost several children to hunger, illness, and violence from the soldiers who kept pursuing them, including by bombing the areas where they were seeking refuge.
As the first witness explained: “I thought that my children would be safe there, that’s why I decided to go to the mountain, but they died of hunger.” This same woman also had a daughter who was killed by soldiers, who cut her up with their machetes, while she was in the mountain. She was pregnant at the time. These survivors came back with nothing, their homes and all of their possessions having been burned while they were in the mountain and, as they pointed out in their declarations, they were literally naked, the clothes on their backs having become almost inexistent after having been exposed to the elements for so long.
Between the second and third video declarations, the court heard the tenth witness of the trial, don Mateo. Don Mateo was held at the Tinajas base for three days, where many of the complainants’ husbands were brought when the soldiers abducted them. Don Mateo told the court that he saw many other villagers were brought in while he was being held there—all people who had started processes to legalize their land. The soldiers questioned the men, asking them about the guerrilleros—who their boss was, where their camps were—and torturing them—cutting their ears, throats, and faces. “What could we say?” asked don Mateo “There were only soldiers in our community, they were the ones causing all the pain.”
Don Mateo was one of the few who managed to escape—he was able to undo the rope that was tied around his feet and run out while the soldiers were busy torturing someone else. He took cover in the surrounding forest, and finally lost the soldiers who’d given chase by jumping into a river, his hands still tied behind his back. He had to cross many rivers and walk through the forest to make it back to his village, avoiding the roads since he knew soldiers would be patrolling. He told the court that he had been beaten so severely that he wasn’t able to work for an entire year after being tortured.
When don Mateo was asked if he could describe “El Canche Asij,” he told the court that he was a “tall, strong man” that you didn’t want to have any problems with. The same lawyer then asked don Mateo if he could see him in the courtroom. The court held its collective breath as don Mateo looked all around the room once, twice, and a third time. He seemed to look right at, or perhaps past Valdez Asij who was sitting at the defense table several times before he finally pointed at him, seeming startled that he was right there, and explained to the court that he had been looking for him in the public gallery.
Fabienne Doiron has extensive experience working and conducting field research in Guatemala for the past 12 years and is a doctoral candidate in Gender, Feminist, and Women’s Studies at York University. She is a research associate with the Center for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) and the Centre for Feminist Studies. Fabienne is currently working with Professor Alison Crosby on research focused on reparations for women survivors of sexual violence during the Guatemalan armed conflict. She is a former international human rights accompanier in Guatemala and member of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network.