Landmark trial begins over murder of Belgian missionaries in Guatemala

A historic trial began in Leuven this week into the murder of three Belgian missionaries in Guatemala in the 1980s. Five former political and military leaders are accused in absentia of being responsible for the deaths of the three men and the abduction and torture of a fourth.

This is the first time that individuals from the state apparatus in Guatemala from the period have had to answer to a foreign court. 

Johan Capiau, the brother of one of the victims, told VRT the trial was an important milestone for him and for society: "Especially to warn human rights violators around the world that they can still be prosecuted for their actions at any time."

Brutal civil war

The indictment read out in court on Monday described how, after civil war broke out in the country in the 1960s, Guatemalan leaders acted ruthlessly to “eliminate” dissenters. Over the 36 years of war, an estimated 140,000 to 200,000 people were killed or forcibly disappeared. This included the four Belgian men from the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. 

They had travelled to southern Guatemala in the 1960s and 70s to support the local population in their struggle against social and economic inequality, and received death threats and frequent harassment.

"It is incredibly important that not only the Belgian victims are remembered, but also the hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans who died"

Walter Voordeckers, 40, was a preacher who advocated equality and justice in his sermons. He was killed in an ambush in 1980. Ward Capiau, 31, had joined a guerrilla group after leaving the clergy and was reportedly killed on a motorway in 1981. 

Paul Schildermans, the only surviving victim, is now 75. In 1982, he was kidnapped and tortured because meetings of a workers’ organisation took place at his home. 

Serge Berten, 29, led the meetings and later took up a leadership position within a guerrilla group. He was seized in the street in Guatemala City in 1982 and disappeared after being recognised by members of the notorious Comando VI police unit. His body has never been found.

Search for justice

The five accused are former defence minister Ángel Aníbal Guevara Rodriguez, 98, interior minister Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz, 92, Pedro García Arredondo, 79, head of the Comando VI, Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, 91, brother of the president and chief of staff of the army, and Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, 84, who was chief of intelligence. 

They are accused of planning, ordering and supervising the crimes against the Belgians. Three of the five are in prison in Guatemala for other offences or under guard in a military hospital. The two others are fugitives. 

Carlos Colson, a cousin of Walter Voordeckers, told VRT: “This gives us the opportunity to find the truth, to hopefully get justice and, above all, to set an example to others who still want to do such things. It is incredibly important that not only the Belgian victims are remembered, but also the hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans who died.”

"With another war raging in Europe, and serious human rights violations taking place, it is of great importance to continue this fight"

The genocide law of 1999 allows a Belgian court to prosecute foreign nationals if they have committed a serious violation of international humanitarian law against a Belgian national. The families of Voordeckers and Berten filed a complaint with the Belgian court in 2001. They had previously travelled to Guatemala in the aftermath of peace accords signed in the 1990s that ended the civil war. 

NGO Guatebelga has supported the families of the victims in bringing the trial. "With another war raging in Europe, and serious human rights violations also taking place, it is of great importance to continue this fight and to hold those responsible to account," it said when the arrest warrant for the five accused was announced in 2022.

Investigating judges, police officers, a professor of international law and a Guatemalan journalist were due to give testimony on Tuesday. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

#FlandersNewsService | Supporters at the trial of five former Guatemalan government members for the murders of three Belgian missionaries in the 1980s, 4 December 2023 © BELGA PHOTO EMIEL CARTER / Chair of the court Peter Hartoch during the jury constitution session, 29 November 2023 © BELGA PHOTO ERIC LALMAND / The grave of Walter Voordeckers in Guatemala © PIET DEN BLANKEN / HOLLANDSE HOOGTE

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