An Historic Victory for Human Rights in Guatemala

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 whereabouts 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, this long legal process 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 four out of five 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. The military has been ordered 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 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, Prensa Comunitaria, has been covering the proceedings when the mainstream media has glossed over this historic trial, despite constant threats from the military’s legal team. Another local organization has provided critical legal services and advice. Many other organizations have provided 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

While the judicial system in Guatemala has many competent, impartial judges, the process has been delayed by internal political changes. Insiders who benefit from the status quo have protected corrupt military officials. The crimes were committed in 1981 and 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, especially when current crimes occupy the attention of media and other sectors who are tired of corruption.

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 the assassination of Myrna Mack. 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 disappeared 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.