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Ex-paramilitaries in Guatemala sentenced to prison for raping Indigenous women

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A search for justice ended Monday afternoon in a Guatemala City courtroom. A panel of judges pronounced five men guilty of rape and forced servitude. Some three dozen victims heard that verdict. They are Maya Achi women. The crimes against them came at the height of the violence in Guatemala's long civil conflict. From Guatemala City, Maria Martin reports for NPR.

MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: The Maya Achi women, now in their 60s and 70s, sat stoically, wearing the traditional woven dress of their Rabinal region, as Judge Herbie Sical read a verdict they've waited nearly 40 years for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERBIE SICAL: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: The defendants were given the maximum sentence - 30 years each for crimes against humanity. These men were part of the same Maya Achi community as the women. They'd been conscripted by the army to serve as so-called self-defense patrols to control their own communities, but the patrols sowed terror and violence, says historian Maria Aguilar, a Quiche Maya teaching at Yale.

MARIA AGUILAR: Sexual violence was a specific aspect of the war, intrinsically tied to the military plans of the Guatemalan army and of the generals who were in power at that time.

MARTIN: This was a landmark human rights trial. Witnesses presented expert testimony demonstrating how the sexual violence tore apart the Achi Maya. The women lost family members and their livelihood and experienced a host of emotional and physical trauma. The women were treated like animals, the judges said, accusing the Guatemalan government of state terror. Now 51, Pedrina Lopez was barely 12 when she was raped in Rabinal.

PEDRINA LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: "We've put up with so much," she says, "with pain and sadness."

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: "We just wanted justice and for what happened to us to never happen again," says Pedrina, explaining why the women persisted for 40 years despite their fear of telling their stories in a community where the perpetrators still lived. When they first brought the case to court over a decade ago, they faced legal obstacles, reversals and discrimination.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Now, Pedrina says, she and the other women are happy. "They've valued our testimonies," she said. "We told the truth."

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: The women's victory, however, is bittersweet. Several of the original plaintiffs have died since the women first brought the case to court. Later this week, they'll find out what reparations the Guatemalan government is willing to pay. For historian Maria Aguilar, this will be the real test of justice.

AGUILAR: These were not poor women. These were not poor communities. They had access to a river. They had access to resources. They had access to plots of land. They were self-sustaining. And all of this was taken away.

MARTIN: The women's lawyers say this case sends a message to all Guatemalans that justice can work when there are impartial judges and prosecutors and that even the most marginalized members of Guatemalan society, Indigenous women, can finally receive justice - though it may take 40 years.

For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin in Guatemala City.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "CERCA DE TI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.