Guatemala sex slave victims seek US$3m in damages in historic wartime rape trial

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A group of Guatemalan women used as sex slaves by two former military officers during the country's civil war are seeking US$3 million ($4.2 million) in compensation following a historic trial, their lawyers said.

On Feb 26, a Guatemalan court convicted a retired army officer and a former paramilitary for holding 11 indigenous women as sex slaves at a military base, murder and forced disappearances dating back to the early 1980s.

The defendants - Esteelmer Reyes Giron, a lieutenant colonel and former commander of the Sepur Zarco base and Heriberto Valdez Asij, a civilian with links to the army - were sentenced to a total of 360 years in prison.

Both deny wrongdoing and will appeal, their lawyers said.

The verdict marks the first time that sexual slavery perpetrated during a conflict has been prosecuted in the country where the crimes took place as opposed to an international tribunal, legal experts said.

"(It) is the first time a national court has recognised and established state troops were responsible for subjecting women, the majority indigenous women in this case, to sexual slavery and exploitation and that sexual violence was used as a weapon of war," said Paula Barrios, a Guatemalan lawyer involved in bringing the case to court.

"This ruling sets a very important example and precedent for criminal proceedings and convictions involving sexual violence in conflict that's not only relevant for Guatemala but other countries like Colombia in armed conflict," Barrios, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

HARROWING TESTIMONY

As many as 250,000 people were killed in a bloody civil war lasting from 1960 to 1996 in the Central American country. Up to 45,000 people disappeared in the conflict between state security forces and Marxist guerrillas.

During the trial, prosecutors told the court that in 1982 soldiers killed, captured and were responsible for the disappearances of more than a dozen men in Sepur Zarco village.

Many of the victims had been campaigning for land rights and were accused by the army of sympathising with the rebels. Some of their wives were forced into slavery at the military base.

The court heard recorded and live testimony from the 11 surviving Mayan women, many in their seventies and eighties, who said they were raped at the base and forced to cook, clean and wash for the soldiers.

One woman, Rosario Xoc, told the court she was gang raped by soldiers near a river where she would wash clothes. "My young son was screaming when he saw what they were doing to me but nobody helped me," she said through a Q'eqchi Mayan language interpreter.

REPARATIONS

The women's lawyers will seek around US$3 million in damages, access to health care, a school and land titles for the victims during a hearing on reparations on March 2.

A United Nations-backed Truth Commission set up under a 1996 peace deal concluded that the military was responsible for more than 85 percent of abuses committed during the war.

But until now no members of Guatemala's armed forces had been convicted of wartime rape in the country.

Rigoberta Menchu, Guatemala's Mayan Nobel laureate and a leading rights activist said the trial had set a precedent that would likely pave the way for more women to come forward. "The bravery of these Mayan women has allowed the silence and impunity surrounding sexual violence to be broken after more than 30 years," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Barrios said around 1,500 testimonies had already been collected from other women who suffered wartime rape and that the Guatemalan authorities were investigating more cases.