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Former Guatemala military convicted for sexual violence in landmark case

Two former Guatemala military officers have been given a combined 360 years in jail for human rights abuses during the 1980s. Indigenous women were raped and abused.

A retired army officer and a former paramilitary trooper have been convicted of sexually enslaving women during the 1980s. It is the first time that a court in Guatemala has handed down a sentence for such crimes. The country is seeking to address abuses committed during its brutal 1960-96 civil war.

"We the judges firmly believe the testimony of the women who were raped in Sepur Zarco," said Yassmin Barrios, chief judge of the court. "Rape is an instrument or weapon of war. It is a way to attack the country, killing or raping the victims. The woman was seen as a military objective."

The packed courtroom erupted in cheers and chants of "justice, justice!" when the ruling was read.

Survivors from the indigenous highland communities (photo) were in court to hear the sentences given to the two men on Friday. Many of the victims are in their seventies and eighties and are still extremely traumatized. They testified to the abuse they suffered during six months in 1982 and 1983 at the Sepur Zarco military base in northern Guatemala.

"These historic convictions send the unequivocal message that sexual violence is a serious crime and that, no matter how much time passes, it will be punished," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. "It is a great victory for the 11 women who embarked on a 30-year-long battle for justice."

Retired officer 2nd Lieutenant Esteelmer Reyes Giron was found guilty of crimes against humanity for holding 15 women in sexual and domestic slavery and for killing one woman and her two young daughters.

Heriberto Valdez Asij, a civilian with military functions, was convicted for the same enslavement, as well as for the forced disappearance of seven men.

The 120-sentence for Reyes Giron and 240-year sentence for Valdez are in part symbolic as Guatemalan law limits the amount of time anyone can spend in prison to 50 years.

Guatemala Versammlung von indigenen Frauen

Women in court hearing testimonies and evidence

Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who was present at the reading of the judgment, said, "this is historic, it is a great step for women and above all for the victims."

Sepur Zarco military base

After a military coup brought army General Rios Montt to power in 1982, the army moved into indigenous communities in the rural, highland north with a "guns and beans" campaign. Its strategy: "If you are with us, we'll feed you, if not, we'll kill you."

After the army entered their communities, the men disappeared. When the women went to the military base to ask for them, they were raped and forced to cook and wash clothes for the soldiers.

During 20 hearings, 11 women from the indigenous Q'eqchis communities described how they physically and emotionally deteriorated while being raped and used as slaves for half a year. In court, many wore indigenous garb and had their faces covered.

Guatemala Jose Efrain Rios Montt

Former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt

Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013 but his conviction was overturned ahead of a retrial which was again delayed on procedural grounds in early January. His successor, army General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, seized power in a 1983 coup and was the country's de facto leader until 1986.

Prosecutors had accused Mejia of genocide for the killing of thousands of indigenous Mayan people by soldiers under his command, but attempts to charge him ended after he was declared unfit for trial due to dementia and the effects of a stroke. He died in January.

jm/jr (EFE, AP)

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