On February 26, 2016, a trial chamber of Guatemala’s High Risk Crimes Tribunal found two former military commanders guilty of “crimes against the duties of humanity” for committing, among other acts, sexual violence, domestic slavery, and sexual slavery against indigenous women near a military outpost in Sepur Zarco during the country’s internal armed conflict. In July 2017, Guatemala’s High Risk Crimes Appellate Court upheld the historic Sepur Zarco judgment, unanimously rejecting the three appeals presented by the defense.
The case is precedent-setting for a number of reasons. Sepur Zarco marks the first time a Guatemalan court has convicted former military members for acts of sexual violence committed in the context of the country’s civil war. It is also the first instance of a domestic court prosecuting sexual slavery as an international crime. Susana SáCouto and Claudia Martin of American University Washington College of Law filed amicus briefs in collaboration with other experts in both the trial and appellate proceedings of the case (trial brief: EN; appellate brief: EN ES).
The Sepur Zarco case stems from land disputes dating back to the early 1980s, during which state military forces attacked a community near a military outpost in Sepur Zarco in the eastern part of Guatemala, killing or disappearing male members of an indigenous community who were attempting to claim legal title over their own land. After the massacre, many of the women of Sepur Zarco were forced to take shifts to cook and clean for the soldiers in a nearby military base, where they were repeatedly raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence.