GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — In a historic ruling, a Guatemalan court on Friday convicted a retired army officer and a former paramilitary for the sexual enslavement of women during the country's civil war. It sentenced them to 120 years and 240 years in prison respectively.
The ruling was the first time a local court handed down a judgment for such crimes in this Central American country, which is seeking to address abuses committed during its brutal 1960-1996 civil war.
The retired officer, 2nd Lt. 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 the forced disappearance of seven men. The 120- and 240-year sentences the men received are partly symbolic since Guatemalan law caps the amount of time anyone can spend in prison at 50 years.
The packed courtroom erupted in cheers and chants of "justice, justice!" when the ruling was read.
"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. It is a great victory for the eleven women who embarked on a 30-year-long battle for justice," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
During the trial, the victims testified to the abuse they suffered during six months in 1982 and 1983 at the Sepur Zarco military base in northern Guatemala.
After the army entered their communities, the men were disappeared and 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.
More than 35 boxes of evidence were presented, including some with human remains and pieces of clothing. The remains were exhumed in 2012 by the Guatemalan Foundation for Forensic Anthropology.
"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."
Moises Galindo, the defense lawyer for Reyes Giron, said the trial was a fabrication and that his client was never at the site of the crimes.
"We are going to appeal. We are going to succeed in having this case thrown out," Galindo said. "They should go to the location because the people of Sepur Zarco don't say that all this happened there."
But the judge said the accused couldn't deny knowing about what had happened since they exercised control and power over the area.
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."
Guatemala was wracked by a decades-long civil war as the military battled a Marxist guerrilla force. According to the United Nations, some 245,000 people were killed or disappeared during the war.