LAS Director Jo-Marie Burt witness to landmark sexual violence trial in Guatemala

A first-ever domestic trial to prosecute alleged sexual slavery and sexual abuse from the Guatemalan Civil War as international crimes is underway in Guatemala City, and a George Mason University professor is there to witness it.

Longtime George Mason political science professor and director of Latin American Studies Jo-Marie Burt is an official observer of the trial for the Washington Office on Latin America, where she is a senior fellow. A Mason work-study student and two students at Mason’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs who are performing undergraduate research are assisting Burt.

A three-judge tribunal is considering the fate of two former military officers said to have abused 15 Maya Q’eqchi’ women, now in their 70s and 80s, on the Sepur Zarco military base in the 1980s. Burt eventually will use the proceedings in her Mason classroom as a case study.

“A conviction would signal that the state of Guatemala acknowledges the crimes and is upholding the rule of law,” Burt said. “For the victims, this acknowledgment is important because for so many years they have lived in silence, too fearful to speak out. After more than 30 years, they are now able to speak publicly about what happened to them and seek redress.”

Her role as an international observer, she said, is to ensure trials of this nature are conducted fairly and impartially.

“It is of utmost importance that the defendants have all the guarantees of due process that the law provides,” she said. “A fair trial helps rebuild confidence in the justice system, so people know that even the most powerful must answer to the law.”

National Public Radio’s story of the trial includes an interview with Burt. It can be heard here. Burt’s reports on the trial can be accessed here.