Wednesday, February 28

Victory in court for indigenous women raped during Guatemala’s civil war | Guatemala

Indigenous women raped by paramilitaries during Guatemala’s brutal civil war have triumphed in court, with their assailants sentenced to 30 years in prison each.

In a verdict hailed as a vindication of survivors who have spent years fighting for justice, a court convicted five former paramilitary patrolmen of crimes against humanity for the rape of five Maya Achi women in the early 1980s.

“We are very happy, very satisfied with the result,” said Brisna Caxaj, sociologist and coordinator of the gender program at Impunity Watch Guatemala, who accompanied the women during the trial.

“The court recognized the use of sexual violence during the armed conflict because it was systematic, and also established how the army used the [paramilitaries] to commit those crimes,” Cajaj told The Guardian.

The verdict is also slightly bittersweet. A group of 36 Maya Achi survivors launched the legal proceedings that ultimately led to Monday’s verdict, but three of the women died in the intervening period, including one last week.

Pedrina López, one of the five women whose cases were included directly in the trial, was only 12 years old when she was raped in Rabinal, 80 kilometers north of Guatemala City. She testified during the trial and took the stand again Monday morning to call for justice.

“What happened never leaves us,” López said in the courtroom Monday morning before the verdict. “My body has stayed with everything that happened.”

López also called on the paramilitaries to return the remains of his parents, who took them away and forcibly disappeared them. Other Maya Achi survivors of sexual violence witnessed massacres of relatives, including children.

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Guatemala’s civil war from 1960-1996 left an estimated 200,000 dead and 45,000 missing. Many of the worst atrocities occurred in the early 1980s.

The 36-year armed conflict was between leftist guerrilla groups and the military, but the military’s counter-insurgency campaign, which included paramilitaries, was also deployed against indigenous civilians.

Achi women await a court's verdict on the case of five paramilitaries accused of sexually assaulting 36 indigenous women during Guatemala's civil war
Maya Achi women await a court verdict in the case of five paramilitaries accused of sexually assaulting 36 indigenous women during Guatemala’s civil war. Photograph: Esteban Biba / EPA

More than 80% of the victims of the atrocities were indigenous Mayan civilians, according to a United Nations-backed truth commission, which also documented more than 600 massacres perpetrated by the military and paramilitaries.

State actors committed acts of genocide in some regions of the country, including the Achi region, the truth commission concluded. A national court agreed in 2018, and former high-ranking military officers face trial for genocide.

“Sexual violence was part of the war,” the three-judge court said in its verdict on Monday, noting that sexual violence was widespread and systemic against Achi women, who were also held in domestic slavery.

Nearly six years ago, two former soldiers were convicted of crimes against humanity for the systematic rape and enslavement of 11 Mayan Q’eqchi’ women in the 1980s in eastern Guatemala. That landmark case helped the Achi survivors to move forward on their own.

In 2019, however, a judge who originally handled the Achi women’s case acquitted three paramilitary patrolmen and provisionally acquitted three others, releasing all of them from custody.

The men are also indigenous and some are from the same peoples as the surviving women. The army recruited, often by force, local men into paramilitary “civil defense patrols” during the civil war.

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“The women were challenged by family members of the accused and faced ridicule and insults when the men came out,” said Lucía Xiloj, one of three indigenous lawyers representing the Achi women joint plaintiffs.

“They have faced so many difficulties,” she told The Guardian, noting that the women faced stigma in court and at home.

The conviction is a victory for the women, and their communities will see that they were heard and believed, Xiloj said.

“The court highlighted in its arguments the importance of women’s testimonies,” he said. “Vindicates all those years of struggle in his search for justice.”

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