On June 7, Judge Claudette Domínguez of Guatemala’s High-Risk Crimes Court “A” ordered eight former military officers to stand trial for crimes against humanity in one of the largest cases of forced disappearance in Latin America’s history.

The legal case is built on eyewitness and expert testimonies, documentary evidence, and the physical remains found during 85 exhumations that have taken place over the past three years at the CREOMPAZ training center, currently in use as a site to train UN peacekeepers. During Guatemala’s armed conflict, however, it was known as “Military Zone 21” – a regional military intelligence and operations base used as a detention and extrajudicial execution center.

A total of 558 bodies have been exhumed from mass graves at the site so far, many bearing signs of torture and buried together with ropes and blindfolds. DNA evidence has positively identified the remains of more than 120 people as belonging to communities in the departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz where major forced disappearances took place.

For more background on the CREOMPAZ case and its significance for transitional justice, read NISGUA’s recently-published in-depth report.

The failure to prosecute sexual violence

While plaintiff organizations applaud the opening of this historic trial against the eight former military officials, they released a statement last week expressing serious concern at Judge Domínguez’s decision to exclude sexual violence from the charges levied against the accused, and remove José Ismael Segura Abularach and Gustavo Alonzo Rosales García from the case.

In a statement made in support of the Public Prosecutor’s decision to appeal both decisions, plaintiff organizations expressed the following:

“For the victims of the internal armed conflict, it is historic that eight military officers will be tried for serious atrocities committed in the former Military Zone 21 of Cobán. However, we believe the crimes that the judge did not attribute to the accused cannot remain in impunity…It is of deep concern that the crimes of sexual violence against women and girls by military officers were not taken into account.” For the full statement in Spanish, click here.

The reluctance to prosecute sexual violence as a crime against humanity is not just a Guatemalan issue – it is a global one. Only a few cases for sexual violence committed during war time have been prosecuted at the international level, including the March 2016 conviction of former Congolese vice-president Jeanne-Pierre Bemba at the International Criminal Court for failing to stop his troops from carrying out acts of sexual violence against civilians in the Central African Republic. Hissène Habré, Chad’s former president, was also convicted in May under the framework of universal jurisdiction at the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal for crimes against humanity including rape and sexual slavery.

In fact, Guatemala has led the way in prosecuting gender-based crimes, when it became the first country in the world to prosecute the crime of sexual slavery committed during armed conflict in a domestic court. In February, two former military officials were convicted for crimes against humanity for keeping women at the Sepur Zarco military base. Click here for more information on this emblematic case.

June 19, 2016, marked the first International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, in part to recognize the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war and prosecute it as a crime against humanity. Plaintiff organizations in the CREOMPAZ case are adamant that the crime of sexual violence does not go unpunished.

Eight to stand trial

While 14 officials were arrested on January 6, 2016 for their alleged involvement in crimes committed in the region between 1981 and 1988, only eight will stand trial at this time. Judge Domínguez chose to not indict Humberto Rodríguez López, Édgar Rolando Hernández Méndez, or Pablo Roberto Saucedo Mérida, citing insufficient evidence to tie them to the crimes.

Luis Alberto Paredes Nájera, second-in-command of Military Zone 21 between 1981 and 1982, was also provisionally separated from the case based on health concerns; reminiscent of the process Ríos Montt went through when INACIF declared him mentally unfit to stand trial, Paredes Nájera will remain separated from the case while an independent body determines his future in the case.

Judge Domínguez also ruled to not send José Ismael Segura Abularach and Gustavo Alonzo Rosales García to trial based on lack of evidence.

Among those who will stand trial are Former Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García and César Augusto Cabrera Mejía, director of the military intelligence section of the MZ21 between 1982 and 1983. Cabrera Mejía was the head of military intelligence under the government of Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo at a time when a series of high-profile political assassinations occurred with the support of military intelligence, including the murder of well-known Guatemalan activist and anthropologist Myrna Mack.

Additional arrest warrants have been issued for eight others in connection with the CREOMPAZ case. The public prosecutor and plaintiff organizations continue to attempt to get the diplomatic immunity withdrawn from Congressman Edgar Justino Ovalle for his alleged connection to the case. Justino Ovalle is one of the co-founders of the National Convergence Front Party (FCN) that brought current President Jimmy Morales to power.

NISGUA has provided accompaniment to several of the plaintiff organizations in the CREOMPAZ case for many years, including the Families of the Detained-Disappeared Guatemala – FAMDEGUA, and will be observing the trial. For live updates, following @NISGUA_Guate on Twitter and regularly check our blog for in-depth coverage.