On the evening of Thursday 3rd December, a court in Chiquimula made history by sentencing former army colonel Marco Antonio Sánchez Samayoa and three former military commissioners, José Domingo Ríos, Gabriel Álvarez Ramos and Salomón Maldonado Ríos to 40 years of prison for the crime of forced disappearance, and 13 years and 4 months for the crime of the illegal detention of eight members of the community of El Jute, in the department of Chiquimula in 1981.
This is the first time that a former member of the Guatemalan military has been sentenced for this crime and only the second ever sentence to be passed in Guatemala for forced disappearance.
The first sentence was passed earlier on this year in the case of Choatalum, in which former military commissioner Felipe Cusanero Coj was sentenced to 150 years of prison, 25 years for each of the six people that were forcibly disappeared from the community of Choatalum in the department of Chimaltenango between 1982 and 1984. (See our blog entry following this verdict).
Both sentences are tribute to the bravery of the victims’ relatives and witnesses who gave their testimonies in court, and the value of these testimonies was recognised by both tribunals. Also of great significance is the fact that both sentences included the opening of further investigation: in the case of Choatalum investigation into the role of two higher-ranking members of the military, and in that of El Jute into the intellectual authorship of the crimes.
However such moves have not been wholly unproblematic. The human rights defenders protection unit in Guatemala -UDEFEGUA for its Spanish acronym – released a communiqué following the reading of the sentence of El Jute in which they outline concerns for the security of those involved in the case, and the Guatemalan newspaper the Prensa Libre has published an article dealing with the threat to witnesses and relatives of the disappeared (click here for an English translation, or for the original Spanish follow this link).
In addition, in both the cases of Choatalum and El Jute, relatives of the victims continue to express more than anything their desire to know of the whereabouts and fate of their loved ones.
Nevertheless, with two historic sentences passed, it could be said that 2009 has been a significant year in the campaign against impunity in cases of forced disappearance, a crime which took the lives of some 45,000 victims during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala.