Guatemala: 4 ex-officers convicted of 1981 rights abuses

May 23, 2018
From left, retired Army officers Edilberto Letona Linares, Francisco Gordillo Martinez, Hugo Zaldana Rojas, and Manuel Antonio Callejas wait for their sentence at a courtroom in Guatemala City, Tuesday, May 22, 2018. The five retired army officers are being charged with crimes against humanity for the illegal detention, torture, and rape of Emma Molina Theissen, and the enforced disappearance of her 14-year old brother, Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, in 1981. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Four retired high-ranking military officers in Guatemala were convicted Wednesday of crimes against humanity and other charges in the 1981 rape and torture of a young woman and the disappearance of her teenage brother.

The decision, the first court judgment over a forced disappearance of a child during Guatemala’s civil war, was read out in court overnight after a two-month trial.

Sentences of 58 years were handed down for former army chief of staff Benedicto Lucas Garcia, ex-military intelligence chief Manuel Antonio Callejas and military intelligence officer Hugo Zaldana Rojas.

Francisco Luis Gordillo, a former commander in the Quezaltenango region, was given 33 years in prison, and ex-Gen. Edilberto Letona was acquitted.

The defendants denied the charges, proclaimed their innocence and argued that any crimes committed came in the context of a nation at war.

In its sentence, the court said, “They always knew what they were doing.”

The trial, which lasted over two months, saw testimony from victims, witnesses, forensic experts and alleged abusers in the case of Emma Molina Theissen, who was detained in September 1981 in Guatemala City and taken to a military encampment in Quetzaltenango.

According to testimony Molina, 20 years old at the time, was tortured and raped before she was able to escape days later. While searching for her, security forces in civilian clothes came to her home and took away her 14-year-old brother, Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, who was never heard from again.

“I want to say that they did not kill me, but they did profoundly destroy my life for many years ... when I did not think I was worthy of living,” Emma Molina said at trial. “I thought my life was a life stolen from my brother.”

“The moment I escaped became the worst mistake, the worst moment of my life and the worst decision, because it meant the kidnapping and disappearance of my brother,” she added.

Defendant Zaldana alleged in court Tuesday that Marco Antonio is alive and in hiding today at age 42. He did not offer any proof to back up that claim.

Prosecutors accused the officers of failing to prevent human rights abuses committed under their command despite knowing that they were taking place.

Emma Molina Theissen also identified Zaldana as one of her rapists, and her mother identified him as the person who took Marco Antonio away.

“I have lived crushed by guilt, full of shame, full of pain, full of disgust, great disgust,” Emma Molina said. “They have no idea. They profaned my body, they violated my humanity, and that will stay with me the rest of my life.”

The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse, but Hector Reyes, a lawyer for the family, said she has spoken openly about her case and that she testified publicly about her experience in order to seek justice.

In 2004 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Guatemalan state was responsible for violating the siblings’ human rights and ordered a search for the remains of Marco Antonio, on the presumption that he was killed. That has not yet happened.

Applause broke out in the audience as the court adjourned, while the defendants embraced each other and sang the hymn of the army.

The army said it would not comment on the decision and that “the Ministry of Defense is respectful of what (courts) rule.”

Some 245,000 people were killed or disappeared during the 1960-1996 conflict, with most of those blamed on the army or paramilitary groups.