An Historic Victory for Human Rights in Guatemala

Nearly 40 years after the brutal armed conflict that tore apart countless lives in Guatemala, a judge delivered a verdict that finally brought justice to survivors—and a measure of hope for thousands.

In September 1981, 21-year-old Guatemalan political activist Emma Molina Theissen was unjustly arrested and taken to a secret military base for interrogation. After being brutally raped and tortured for nine days, she managed to escape. The military retaliated by going to her house and, when they couldn’t find her, they kidnapped her 14-year-old brother Marco Antonio instead. His whereabout are unknown to this day.

The military leaders who perpetrated these crimes have not faced any consequences—until now. While the Guatemalan government admitted responsibility in 2000, the long legal process to prosecute and convict those who carried out these atrocities has finally come to an end 37 years later.

Mother and daughter hug after the verdict. Photo credit: EFE
Mother and daughter hug after the verdict. Photo credit: EFE

A Huge Victory for Human Rights in Guatemala

Guatemala’s High Court found 4 out of 5 former high-level military officers guilty of the forced disappearance of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, sentencing them to 25 years in prison and ordering them to continue the search for Marco. Additionally, the same military officers were charged for crimes against humanity and the illegal detention and rape of his sister Emma Guadalupe in 1981, and sentenced them to 33 years in prison.

Pablo Xitumul de Paz, president of the court, declared that the military officers could have “acted in a different way, but preferred not to comply with human rights and the law that prohibits what they did. This offends every human being and that shouldn’t remain unpunished,” said Xitumul, who also acknowledged that the army involved innocent civilians in an internal war.

Support on the Long Road to Justice

Several organizations have helped the Molina Theissen family on this long and difficult road to justice. AJWS partner Unidad de Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos en Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), an organization that works to protect human rights defenders, provided security and protection to members of the family and their legal team. UDEFEGUA representatives have personally accompanied members of the Molina Theissen family to court every single day over the past several months.

Another AJWS partner, media watchdog Prensa Comunitaria, covered the proceedings—despite constant threats from the military’s legal team—when the mainstream media glossed over this historic trial. Other organizations have provided critical legal services and advice and specialized assistance to the family. The human rights community in Guatemala and abroad has followed the case closely and provided moral support to the Molina Theissen family as they continue their pursuit of justice.

Surviving members of the Molina Theissen family standing together solemnly the day before the verdict. Photo credit: Prensa Comunitaria.
Surviving members of the Molina Theissen family the day before the verdict. Photo credit: Prensa Comunitaria.

A Historic Step Toward Justice

These crimes were committed in 1981, but it is only now that Emma and her family can see justice being served. This is a huge victory for civil society and human rights organizations who have pushed Guatemalan institutions to not forget about the crimes of the past and to persevere to fight the culture of impunity that has allowed too many perpetrators to go free for decades.

This is a glimmer of hope for Guatemalans who, understandably, have little faith in their legal system. The tribunal issued an exemplary sentence closely aligned with international standards and based their verdict on legal precedent from the case of Myrna Mack, an anthropologist and human right activist who was assassinated for criticizing the government of Guatemala. This is a very special day not only for Guatemalans, but for countries like Sri Lanka and Mexico, who continue to fight impunity for the thousands of people disappeared in their own conflicts and find hope in the Guatemalan high court system.

For AJWS, this is a huge victory for social movements seeking justice, as we renew our commitments to continue our support for legal strategies to address mass atrocities around the world.