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Mayan Women Accuse Military Officials Of Holding Them As Sex Slaves

A historic trial is taking place in Guatemala.

For the first time, according to rights activists, the country is prosecuting military officials for sexual violence committed during the Central American country's three-decade long civil war, which ended in the 1990s.

In the trial going on this week, 15 women have come forward to accuse two former military officials of systematic sexual abuse in the 1980s.

The women, all Mayan Indians, sit in folding chairs behind a bank of prosecutors in the vast chamber of Guatemala's Supreme Court. All cover their faces with traditional rebozos, brightly colored shawls. Most are in their 70s, some in their 80s. Most of the women opted to record their stories of torture and rape instead of testifying. These videos were played during the testimony in court.

But yesterday, 75-year-old Petrona Choc Cuc uncovered her head, sat down next to an interpreter and told the three-judge panel how soldiers killed her husband, then captured her and her daughter.

Streamed over a live web video set up by rights groups, Choc Cuc described, in her native Mayan language, how she and her daughter were repeatedly raped at the military base near her small eastern Guatemala village. There she was forced to cook and clean for the soldiers for six months. Although Choc Cuc was fuzzy on many of the dates and details, her story echoed those told by the other women. Some say the sexual slavery lasted up to six years and was orchestrated by the two men on trial.

One of the defendants, former military official Heriberto Valdez Asig, says he is innocent. The other, former base commander Esteelmer Reyes Giron, refuses to recognize the court's authority. He is in the courtroom raising motions for a mistrial and is not putting up a defense. Both men and their supporters question the impartiality of prosecutors who they say only try former soldiers for crimes and ignore atrocities committed by guerrilla fighters during the decades-long armed conflict.

The fact that this trial has been able to go forward in Guatemala — still politically polarized by the war and hampered by an inadequate judicial system— is historic, says Jo-Marie Burt, a politics professor and director of Latin American studies at George Mason University.

She says that after decades of reluctance to take on the military, prosecutors are now willing to try.

"It's quite significant. I think it's a very positive sign. And I really do hope that the Guatemalan justice system is up to the task," says Burt.

The trial is expected to last at least a month.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.