Guatemala City, Guatemala - "What will the law say about what happened to us?" asked Petrona Choc, pausing in the middle of her testimony to give powerful voice to the question at the heart of the Sepur Zarco trial, in which she was a complainant and witness.

Looking up at the panel of judges in Guatemala's Supreme Court, she continued: "After all the damage they did to us will things remain as they are? Or will there be justice?"

The 75-year-old is one of 15 Mayan Q'eqchi women from Sepur Zarco in Guatemala who demanded justice for the sexual violence, sexual slavery and domestic slavery perpetrated against them 34 years ago by the Guatemalan military.

Last Friday, those women finally got to hear what the law had to say about what had happened to them: the two accused - former members of the military - received sentences totalling 360 years imprisonment.

When the sentence was announced, supporters who had lined the courtroom for the month-long public trial erupted into chants of "justice".

Rigoberta Menchu Tum, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning indigenous rights activist who has led previous campaigns to bring members of the Guatemalan political and military elite to trial, embraced the elderly women who, since they speak no Spanish, had been given headpieces to hear the sentence translated into their own language, Q'eqchi.

During the month, Guatemala's High Risk Tribunal A - the special court set up for cases of particular political sensitivity - had heard witness testimonies from survivors, as well as contextual analysis, medical reports and forensic evidence from expert witnesses.

In sentencing, Judge Yassmin Barrios said: "We firmly believe in recognising the truth: it helps to heal the wounds of the past, to raise consciousness that such incidents must not be repeated."

Ethnic Q'eqchi women sit with their faces covered during the final hearing in the Sepur Zarco case [REUTERS/Josue Decavele]

The crimes in context

Barrios' statement also acknowledged the military's use of sexual violence as a strategic weapon in the context of Guatemala's 36-year civil war.

"The desecration of the bodies of the women also constituted a desecration of the community," Barrios said. "It turned the women into objects of war, to achieve the annihilation of those considered their enemy."

Guatemala's conflict was triggered by a CIA-organised coup in 1954, which replaced a democratically elected government implementing progressive reforms - including land redistribution - with military rule.

When the military returned the redistributed land to the country's oligarchs and violently repressed any opposition, leftist groups took up arms. 

War broke out in 1960, with, in the ideological framework of the Cold War, the US continuing to provide the Guatemalan state army with funds and CIA counterinsurgency training.

Sepur Zarco is a small rural community in the Polochic valley of north-eastern Guatemala. Historian Juan Carlos Pelaez, who testified in court, explained that the Q'eqchi people - the second-largest ethnic Maya group in Guatemala - have inhabited the Polochic valley for more than five centuries, despite having suffered land-grabs, persecution and forced displacement.

In the early 1980s, the Q'eqchi community leaders of Sepur Zarco sought to obtain legal titles to their land.

When a state military base was established in Sepur Zarco in 1982, the men involved in this land struggle were forcibly "disappeared". They were the husbands of the complainants in the trial.

"The whole conflict began when we solicited for our land," explained Domingo Tzup in his testimony. "My father was one of the ones who was soliciting it in Sepur Zarco .... They took him one night. We found his body [on] the third day."

A former soldier, who testified via video-link as a protected witness, said that the forcibly disappeared men had been "designated as guerrillas". There was, however, no guerrilla activity in the area. 

Former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig attends the final hearing in the case [REUTERS/Josue Decavele]

The crimes in court

Once the army had forcibly disposed of the men, the women of the Q'eqchi community were enslaved, forced into unpaid labour at the base. During their "shifts" the women were forced to cook for the military and wash their uniforms, using their own soap. They also suffered repeated, systematic sexual violence, perpetrated by numerous individual soldiers and by groups, often at gunpoint.

Most of the women in the courtroom gave their evidence in the form of pre-trial testimonies recorded in 2012 and screened in court. But Petrona Choc gave hers in person.

"One day the soldiers arrived," she told the court, "and one of my sons, Abelino, said 'Here come the soldiers, today we are all going to die'. I gathered my children and told them we would flee to the mountains. We were fleeing when we heard the thunder of gunfire, and there my husband died ... It is very painful to tell this ... I was violated many times. One of my daughters was also violated ... It still hurts me, everything they did."

The two defendants in the trial were arrested in June 2014. Former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig has been found guilty of the forced disappearance of six of the women's husbands, as well as crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence against one woman. He pleaded his innocence until the end, and his lawyer argued that there was no evidence linking him personally to crimes. He has been sentenced to a total of 240 years in prison, and is required to pay 250,000 quetzales (around $32,500) in reparations for each of the disappeared men.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Giron was found guilty of crimes against humanity in the form of sexual violence, sexual slavery and domestic slavery, against 11 women. When called to the stand on the first day of trial he interrupted Barrios, declaring his refusal to recognise her authority. His lawyer, Moises Galindo suggested that the women of Sepur Zarco had voluntarily "prostituted themselves" due to a "context of economic crisis". Reyes Giron was sentenced to a total of 120 years in prison, and required to pay 500,000 quetzales (around $65,000) in reparations to each of the women he abused.

Reyes Giron was also found guilty of the murder and cruel treatment of three women: Dominga Cuc and her two infant daughters, Anita and Hermelinda.

Seventy-nine-year-old Julia Cuc, the mother of Dominga Cuc and grandmother of the two girls, aged two and three when they were murdered with their mother in 1982, testified in court: "[My daughter] had to dig her own grave. They killed her despite the fact that she had washed their clothes. They told her to wash because they were going to release her .... My daughter was very unwell when they sent her to the river and killed her. They did a lot of damage to her body violating her.

"In the exhumation they found clothes and big bones of my daughter. Of my granddaughters they only found their underclothes. Their bones were already dust."

The women acknowledge their supporters after the verdict [REUTERS/Josue Decavele]

Breaking the silence

For 25 years, the women of Sepur Zarco suffered in silence. The legal system had historically been an agent of their exclusion and re-victimisation and this, teamed with their feelings of shame and trauma, meant that they never sought legal redress. 

But Guatemalan women's organisations have been working for decades to expose the systemic sexual violence perpetrated during the war. The National Union of Guatemalan Women (UNAMG) and ECAP, which offers psychosocial support, have backed the women of Sepur Zarco since 2003 and, in 2009, the feminist legal organisation Women Transforming the World (MTM) joined them to form the Alliance to Break the Silence and Impunity.

With the support of this alliance, 15 women from Sepur Zarco filed their lawsuit in 2011.

Paula Barrios is the director of MTM. She explains how they worked with the Q'eqchi women for two years to find ways of introducing the formal legal system into their worldview. At one stage, she says, they collectively agreed on animals with particular symbolic connotations to represent actors in the judicial process.

"For women, the butterfly has always been an important icon, after the Mirabal sisters, and throughout women's struggle. So each of the women painted their butterfly and that is how we represented them in the process.

"For the organisations that have accompanied the women, they chose bees. The lion is strong, so that is how we understood that we are facing two aggressors - the accused - who have a lot of power, which it takes strength to face. The parrot is the public prosecutor, because it asks a lot of questions, talks a lot.

"We represented the judge as an owl, which in the community they call Lechuza, because the Lechuza sees clearly, even in darkness."

Indigenous women hold crosses during a march to commemorate the National Day of Dignity for the Victims of Armed Internal Conflict, in Guatemala City, on February 25, 2016. The day honours the victims of Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996 [REUTERS/Josue Decavele]

Ending impunity

The verdict sets an important precedent at both a national and international level.

The Sepur Zarco trial was the first case in which the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war was tried in the country in which the crimes took place. Previous cases - such as in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia - were tried in international courts. 

It is also the first such case to be brought to trial in Guatemala despite the UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification finding that rape was a widespread, systematic practice during the war, and that the rape of indigenous women - 89 percent of victims - was a key element of the genocide committed against Mayan peoples.

Luz Mendez, the only woman in the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit delegation that signed the Peace Accords with the Guatemalan government in 1996 and who is on the executive board of UNAMG, said: "The judgment issued by the court did not only bring justice for the women of Sepur Zarco, but it broke the total impunity for crimes of sexual violence during the armed conflict, and gave hope to hundreds of thousands of women in Guatemala and the world, who have suffered sexual violence in war."

Yet significant structural obstacles remain. "Cases of this magnitude implicate many interests ... at one point the public prosecutor doubted going ahead with the arrests despite all the elements required by law being in place. The Q'eqchi women's representative said to the public prosecutor: 'But look, do not be afraid, we are with you. We have already testified. We have been doing ceremonies. You can go ahead with the arrests.' This made a big impression on me. How can it be that the victim should have to say to the public prosecutor 'Do not be afraid'?" asked Paula Barrios.

Luz Mendez is clear on the source of such entrenched obstacles to justice: "The main threat is the control that - despite the advances that have been made - military and oligarchical powers continue to have over the Guatemalan justice system."

Little, too, has changed in the balance of land ownership in Guatemala, which remains acutely unequal: 57 percent of the country's land is owned by two percent of its people; while three percent of the land is shared between almost half of the population. Indigenous people continue to be displaced.  

"The people who did this to us are free, they are eating well. And we are very poor," said Domingo Coc in his testimony. 

This is why the women of Sepur Zarco's main demand for reparation, heard in the audience for victims reparation yesterday, is material compensation in the form of land and housing.

Luz Mendez quoted the pre-trial testimony of one woman by way of explaining this: "When the war came to our community they [the military] burned our houses. To date I do not have a piece of land. When they killed our husbands it was for land, so they [the state] must recognise our need for land to work on."

The women have also asked that the state publicly recognise and apologise for the damage done to them, that measures be taken to eliminate all forms of racism, improve health, educational and cultural facilities, and that the authorities continue to search for their disappeared husbands and sons.

An indigenous woman holds a cross during a march to commemorate the National Day of Dignity for the Victims of Armed Internal Conflict [REUTERS/Josue Decavele]

'Behind these women there are many more'

There is also another way in which this trial has set a precedent.

"Currently, in the Guatemalan system," explained Paula Barrios, "to prove sexual violence you have to include a physical analysis of the body of the woman: it is the body that has the burden of proof in determining the credibility of the women's testimony. This not only violates the rights of women, but it is also absurd."

As the crimes took place so long ago, this was impossible in this case. And the organisations representing the women hope this trial will pave the way for similar ones to proceed using the same strategy. Because, as Paula Barrios said: "Behind these women there are many more waiting for justice. The justice system must see and value this case and generate the conditions that will enable other women to access justice without having to go through everything the women of Sepur Zarco have had to go through to achieve a trial."

Ada Valenzuela, the director of UNAMG, hopes the women of Sepur Zarco live to see the fruits of the justice that had so long been denied them. 

"In Jalok U [the Q'eqchi women's collective], one of the women said something that I carry in my heart, in my mind, in every part of me. She said: 'I cannot die. I am still fighting. And as there is still no justice, I cannot die in peace'."

Now in their 60s and 70s, the women see themselves as very old. Magdalena Pop, one of the 15 women from Sepur Zarco that originally brought the case, died in 2013, only three months after recording her pre-trial testimony. It was screened in court on February 15.

In it, she said: "I have already done everything I could. I spoke when I had to speak. Now you must continue this struggle."

Source: Al Jazeera