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Belgium: Guatemalan officials found guilty of crimes against humanity in historic trial


In a landmark verdict, on 14 December, the public jury of the Assisen Court in Leuven (Belgium) passed life sentences to five former Guatemalan ministers and military leaders.


The conviction encompasses 19 counts of crimes against humanity committed against four Flemish missionaries during a period of dictatorship and fierce repressions in Guatemala in the 1980s.

The victims – Scheutists Walter Voordeckers, Ward Capiau, Paul Schildermans and Serge Berten – were murdered and disappeared respectively.


Two of the sentenced officials are currently fugitives, while the other three are in prison or under military supervision in Guatemala. The trial therefore took place in absentia.


A symbolic precedent for extra-territorial jurisdiction

The court’s decision to deliver life sentences plays an important symbolic role. First, it underscores the gravity of the crimes and the collective responsibility of the accused.


The case is also the first instance where individuals from the Guatemalan military and police face extra-territorial jurisdiction. Belgium, under the “law of international crimes,” exercises the authority to prosecute severe crimes against humanity committed abroad when there is a connection to the country.


The protracted legal process, spanning over 40 years, adds to the exceptional nature of this trial. The two-decade-long investigation by Belgian authorities highlights the commitment of the victims and their loved ones to pursuing justice for crimes against humanity.


The jury acquitted the defendants of the manslaughter charge related to missionary Serge Berten, because his remains were never found. It did convict them for his enforced disappearance.


Stefaan Berten, brother of Serge Berten, in an interview to VRT hails the verdict as pivotal for justice:

“Such violations of human rights are unacceptable. The court’s decision is a testament to the enduring legacy of Serge’s work. It is a bittersweet victory, as our parents, who fought tirelessly for this cause, cannot witness this moment. Nonetheless, we believe they would have been gratified by this outcome.”

The case in Belgium has been led by the non-profit organisation Guatebelga. It was up in 2002 to support the family members of the victims in getting justice. (Read Guatebelga’s statement on the verdict here.)


Impunity Watch has been partnering with Guatebelga to support the case since the beginning.

Executive Director of Impunity Watch Marlies Stappers said:

“This international trial is an important victory for justice, 40 years after the crimes were committed. Given the defendants are high-level officials, it highlights the systemic nature of repressions, gross human rights violations and impunity in Guatemala during the armed conflict. Being the first international case for Guatemala, it also sets a legal precedent for dealing with crimes against humanity through extra-territorial jurisdiction.“We are immensely grateful to Guatebelga for their unwavering efforts to find justice for their loved ones and for Guatemala, and stand in solidarity with victims of the armed conflict, in Belgium and Guatemala alike.”

Background

The crimes against the Flemish missionaries took place amidst the sugar cane plantation strikes in the south coast of the country in the early 1980s. The missionaries supported the plantation workers to advocate for better rights, living conditions and social justice.


The crimes occurred during civil war in Guatemala that lasted from 1960-1996. Around 200,000 people were killed, and 45,000 people disappeared.



 

Impunity Watch, 2023

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