In a courtroom in Guatemala’s capital, Guatemala City, a landmark genocide trial that has raised victims’ hopes that justice will prevail is nearing an end.
Former Guatemalan dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt - the first ex-head of state to stand trial for crimes against humanity in his own country - and his former intelligence chief Jose Mauricio Rodriguez are facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity under Rios Montt’s 1982-1983 rule.
During that time, around 1,771 civilians from the Mayan Ixils indigenous group were killed in one of the bloodiest phases of Guatemala’s civil war that raged from 1960 to 1996.
The trial has marked a turning point for rape survivors, breaking the taboo of sexual violence used as a weapon of war, local rights groups say.
“This is the first time in a national court that the issue of sexual violence has been aired more than 15 years after the war ended,” said Alejandra Castillo, assistant director of Guatemala's Human Rights Legal Action Centre (CALDH). “It’s an issue that has until now remained invisible. It’s very important because it’s a recognition that sexual violence of this nature happened.”
“After women suffered sexual violence, they were often rejected by their communities and not accepted back. There’s still stigma attached to sexual violence. But talking about it during the trial has paved the way for more dialogue and initiatives to combat high levels of sexual violence that still exist in Guatemala today. It’s a step forward,” Castillo told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Guatemala City.
Around 200,000 people died and 45,000 disappeared during Guatemala's 36-year civil war. A United Nations-backed Truth Commission set up under the 1996 peace accords concluded that the military was responsible for more than 85 percent of human rights violations during the war.
Over the past eight weeks scores of victims and expert witnesses have testified in court, in a trial that has been televised live and watched on live streaming.
Victims of the civil war, many from Guatemala’s northwestern state of Quiche, a mountainous region home to poor subsistence farmers from the Ixil indigenous population, have shared gruesome testimony. Mothers have described watching their sons being killed and their homes torched by soldiers. Others have described unborn children being cut out of pregnant women.
All the while they testified, the moustachioed 86-year-old Rios Montt sat nearby in the courtroom, sometimes taking notes.
Of all the harrowing testimony heard in the court, few will forget two days last month when it was the turn of survivors of sexual violence and rape to testify. During those days, the television cameras were switched off, no photos were taken and the names of victims withheld.
Around 10 women aged between 40 and 80, with their faces covered and wearing brightly coloured traditional dress, spoke for up to an hour about their ordeals in a packed courtroom.
“I was 12 years old when they took to me to a military unit with other women and tied my hands and feet up … they placed a cloth over my mouth … and then they began to rape me … I don’t know how many men were involved … I lost consciousness. My blood ran down me. After, I couldn’t even get up or go urinate,” one woman told the court, according to court records made public.
One mother spoke of having to watch her daughter being gang raped by soldiers.
“I also saw how many soldiers raped my daughter. She was only 12 years old then and they held her down in my bed. There were four soldiers who raped my daughter. They were hitting her very hard and she didn’t stop crying.”
Whatever the verdict the three-judge panel will give, the trial has given Mayan women - the poorest and most downtrodden in Guatemalan society - a rare opportunity to be heard.
Castillo said one woman who gave testimony told her: “'I’ve completed my task to tell the truth in a national court and to be listened to'.”
“What women want in terms of justice is that no-one else has to go through what they went through and that history does not repeat itself,” added Castillo.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors have argued that sexual violence was used as weapon of war to sow terror and subjugate indigenous communities as part of a government-led policy of genocide that aimed to wipe out the Mayan population.
Paloma Soria, a lawyer working for Women's Link Worldwide, a women’s rights group, took the stand last month as an expert witness on gender and international human rights and testified about the ways in which women and girls were targeted by the military.
“I wanted to make it clear that what had been done to women was a crime and that any kind of gender-based violence is a crime,” Soria told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
During the trial, Rios Montt has repeatedly declared his innocence. In an hour-long rebuttal on Thursday, the former general said a genocide plan never existed and that he had no command responsibility over the army officers in the field who committed human right violations.
"I never authorised, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered an attack against any race, against any ethnic group," he told the court.
If found guilty, Rios Montt faces up to 75 years in prison. The verdict is expected later on Friday.