The Sepur Zarco trial began on Monday, February 1. My daughter Deborah and I arrived in Guatemala late the night of February 2. We went the next day to observe the trial proceedings. The Supreme Court is at the edge of Zona 1, the downtown of old Guatemala City. We had to surrender our passports in order to enter the building and then climbed three flights of stairs to the third floor. Once outside the courtroom, our bags were checked and any food and water bottles removed.
The court room was large. The three judges sat on a level above the prosecutors and defendants - the chief judge Jazmin Barrios was in the middle. The eleven women whose stories of sexual slavery at a military base during the 1980's civil war were seated to the right of the audience. The women were covered with their native traje/woven materials so noone could tell who they were.
In front of them was a bank of attorneys from Mujeres Transformando El Mundo, women's legal alliance who were prosecuting the two military officers on behalf of the women. In the middle of the courtroom floor was a table and chair for witnesses. To the left was a small team of defense lawyers. At first I could not tell who the military person was - he was in casual dress seated at the end of the defense table.
Of course, attending a trial in Spanish even when one speaks the language, was challenging. Much of the testimony was given in Q'eqchi and then translated into Spanish. That day the court was hearing testimony taken in 2012 - it was a video of a covered woman with her back to the camera and her translator. After her testimony was finished the defense team raised objections as they could not directly question her. Judge Barrios dismissed this objection saying that they had the opportunity during the taped testimony to raise questions.
The next witness, an older man, with a partially closed or disfigured hand, sits down with a translator. He speaks in his own language and testifies about life on the military base. The women lawyers address him as "Don Matteo," a sign of respect in Guatemala, but the defense lawyers just call him "Matteo." Several times he breaks down and mops his face with a handkerchief as with a voice that breaks, he tells about being beaten. He describes the killing of people from his community and that their bodies were dumped into a common grave.
When he begins to weep quietly, I look at the shrouded women. Some of them are crying as I can see their shoulders and bodies convulse. A young woman moves quietly among them giving them kleenex and water and pats them on the arm.
A woman defense lawyer asks if Matteo can see the responsible person in the courtroom. He looks around and finally points to the older man seated next to the defense team in blue jeans and a plaid shirt. The court room is silent.
I look around the audience. I see many older indigenous men and women from the countryside. Perhaps, these are neighbors or family members who are here to support the women's case. I wonder silently "what does it mean for indigenous persons to see this case brought to the light of day? To have their truths told in front of the court, the press and other observers?
Deborah and I returned four more times to be part of the international witnesses to this historic trial. We returned home to the United States before the judges' decision on Friday, February 27th. My sister heard the news on a BBC report that evening and called my daughter immediately. When I heard the news, I felt the power of the women who persisted to tell their truth and did not give up. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-35674893
We had been following this case since August, 2013 when we first learned of the women's experiences during a Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA delegation to Guatemala. GHRC/USA sent out a release last week detailing the extent of this historic decision for women throughout the world. https://ghrcusa.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/2-found-guilty-in-historic-sepur-zarco-sexual-slavery-case-2/
There is another very important human rights case in progress in Guatemala with the arrest of 18 high level military officers accused of crimes against humanity during the 1980's civil war. The Sepur Zarco case decision gives me hope that Guatemala may finally address the issue of impunity and let its citizens know that no one is above the law.