Latin America & Caribbean

Guatemala military sexual violence trial starts

A group indigenous women covering their faces attend the trial of two army officers accused of keeping 11 indigenous women as sex slaves during the country's bloody 36-year civil war, in Guatemala City on February 1, 2016. Image copyright AFP
Image caption The trial opened with the eleven alleged victims in attendance.

A trial has begun in Guatemala of two ex-military officers for human rights abuses against indigenous women during the country's long armed conflict.

Francisco Reyes and Heriberto Valdez are accused of allowing the rape and abuse of 11 women at the Sepur Zarco military base in the 1980s.

The UN says rape was used as a weapon of war by the Guatemalan military.

Such an offence has never before been tried in the country where the crimes occurred.

Image copyright AP
Image caption In the courtroom the eleven alleged victims (three have already died) wearing traditional Mayan indigenous dress sat with their heads and faces covered.

In the courtroom the 11 alleged victims wearing traditional Mayan indigenous dress sat with their heads and faces covered.

In solidarity, other women in the room also covered their heads.

The two defendants, Francisco Reyes Giron and his regional commander, Heriberto Valdez Asij, are accused of allowing their troops to rape and abuse the women at the military base.

Both have denied any wrongdoing.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Former military commissioner, Heriberto Valdez Asij is accused of sexual violence and slavery

The base, near Sepur Zarco in eastern Guatemala, was being used as a "rest and recreation base" for troops fighting left-wing guerrillas in the Guatemalan highlands.

At a pre-trial hearing the women told the judge that their husbands had been murdered by the soldiers.

Then, a few weeks later, they came back for the women, they said.

Soldiers raped them and burned down their houses and crops, and forced them to move into shacks outside the military base.

Every two or three days, each woman was allegedly made to report for three-day shifts at the base where they were forced to cook and clean, and where they were systematically raped by the soldiers.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Former army officer Francisco Reyes Giron (R), accused of keeping 15 indigenous women as sex slaves

The women endured the shifts for 10 months in 1982-83. But some were not released from bondage until the military base closed in 1998.

Bringing the case to trial has been tortuous. The victims are now in their seventies and eighties.

The speak no Spanish, only the Mayan language, Q'eqchi.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The court was filled with supporters of the women

Supported by women's' rights and advocacy groups, the women and five male witnesses decided to come forward with their stories in 2011.

The two ex-military officers were arrested in June 2014 and the case initially went to trial in October. But it was put on hold because of challenges by the defence.

A UN report has described how the Guatemalan military used rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war during almost 40 years of the armed conflict which ended in 1996 with a peace accord.

The trial is expected to last 40 days.

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