Guatemala tries 2 ex-military officers in sexual abuse of women in civil war

Women cover their faces while listening to an interpreter, left, in the ex-military officers' trial in Guatemala.

Story highlights

  • Indigenous women say Guatemala's military treated them as sexual and domestic slaves
  • Two ex-military officers accused of murder, rape, domestic servitude and kidnapping
  • One suspect suggests trial is a political show to make it appear government is doing justice

Guatemala City (CNN)They came to the courtroom with their faces covered. Some wore woven Mayan shawls of vibrant colors. Others had towels over their heads, with only their eyes uncovered to watch the proceedings.

The years have passed, but the shame remains for 11 indigenous women who say Guatemala's military treated them as sexual and domestic slaves during the Central American country's long civil war.
    The unidentified women, all wearing Mayan dresses, showed up Monday at Guatemala's Supreme Court building in Guatemala City for the beginning of a trial against two former military officers. The women all say they were held against their will at the Sepur Zarco military base in eastern Guatemala in 1982 and 1983.
    At the time, Guatemala was in the midst of a bloody civil war that started in 1960 and didn't end until 1996 with the signing of peace accords. Indigenous communities often were caught in the middle as the Guatemalan government fought leftist rebel groups.
    The two former military officers are facing charges of murder, rape and sexual abuse, domestic servitude and kidnapping, according to the Guatemalan attorney general's office.
    Former Lt. Col. Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Giron and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij have both vehemently denied the accusations. The Guatemalan army has had no comment. Both suspects have been in jail for 20 months.
    Reyes suggested the trial is a political show to make it appear as if Guatemala's government is doing justice. "Within the Guatemalan army, during the 36 years of the civil war that we fought, there was not a single murderer. This is all a farce," the ex-military commander said.
    But prosecutor Hilda Pineda, who is in charge of the case, said the former military commanders, in an effort to submit the local population to their will, authorized and consented to systematic acts of sexual abuse and inhumane, cruel and humiliating treatment against the victims and other women.
    Pineda also said the women were forced to cook and do the laundry. Even worse, the prosecutor said, soldiers would rape the victims in dormitories, on hallway floors, by the river when they were doing laundry, at military checkpoints and in a house at the military base.
    Pineda told the court that soldiers made the women's husbands disappear, killed their animals, burned their houses and destroyed their fields and other property.
    The victims, now in their 70s and 80s, have waited for justice for more than 30 years. They speak no Spanish and communicate in a Mayan language known as Q'eqchi.
    Prosecutors said most of them were victimized for 10 months between 1982 and 1983, but some were held as slaves at the military base until the war's end in 1996.
    Felipe Sarti, leader of the human rights organization Breaking the Silence and Impunity, said the trial will open for the first time a small window into the atrocities the Guatemalan army committed during the civil war.
    "We feel satisfied and happy about the fact that some witnesses are testifying," Sarti said. "That's very important because it allows us to know the truth from the perspective of those who witnessed the abuse and the women who endured it."
    María Domínguez, a government advocate for the protection of indigenous women's rights, said the importance of this case goes beyond the 11 women in this case.
    "When you speak about the rape of women during the armed conflict, you're talking about Guatemala's history," Domínguez said. "Their human rights were violated, and this is something that it's still happening every day. This is a landmark trial for the Guatemalan justice system."