Erwin Sperisen, a Swiss and Guatemalan national, was born on 27 June 1970 in Guatemala.
On 22 July 2004, Sperisen was elected as Chief of the National Civil Police (PNC) in Guatemala City, a position he maintained until his resignation on 26 March 2007.
After having resigned from his position, Sperisen established himself in Geneva, Switzerland.
During his mandate as PNC’s Chief, Sperisen was entrusted with leading and ensuring the proper functioning of the national law enforcement corps of Guatemala.
After the escape of 19 dangerous prisoners from the high security prison of El Infiernito in Guatemala City, on 22 October 2005, the Guatemalan security apparatus implemented a plan to locate and arrest the escaped prisoners (the Gavilan Plan). As a result of the execution of the Gavilan Plan, nine prisoners were captured, and three prisoners allegedly killed. After the events, the crime scene was allegedly manipulated to make the murders look like resulting from an armed confrontation, in order to justify the excessive use of force.
On 25 September 2006, the Guatemalan police carried out an operation aimed at re-establishing police’s control over the Pavón detention centre in the outskirts of Guatemala City. Pavón was for a long time ruled by some of the criminals detained in the prison. During the operation, which mobilised officials of the PNC, the penitentiary authorities and the army, seven prisoners were arrested and killed. Signs of crime scene manipulation were found.
In early 2008, criminal suits against Erwin Sperisen were filed to the Office of the Prosecutor of the Canton of Geneva (OPCG) by several Swiss organizations, including TRIAL International, as Sperisen’s was present on Swiss territory.
On 6 August 2010, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) issued an arrest warrant against Sperisen and other 17 suspects and charged them with participation in a joint criminal enterprise in order to murder prisoners in El Infiernito and Pavón detention centres.
On 20 April 2011, the OPCG sent a rogatory letter to Guatemala to investigate the killings occurred between 2004-2007.
On 31 August 2012, Sperisen was arrested by the Swiss authorities in Geneva and detained in Champ Dollon prison. He was charged with:
– planning, ordering or committing the murder of seven inmates on 25 September 2006 and evidence tampering during the police operation in the Pavón prison;
– planning, ordering or committing the murder of a prisoner escaped from El Infernito detention centre on 3 November 2005 and evidence tampering in execution of the Gavilan plan; and
– planning, ordering or committing the murder of two prisoners escaped from El Infiernito detention centre on 1 December 2005 in execution of the Gavilan plan.
In March 2013, the mother of one of the victims filed a complaint and joined the criminal procedure. 14 witnesses travelled from Spain, France and Guatemala in order to be heard by the Swiss authorities.
On 15 May 2014, the trial started before the Geneva Criminal Court. Sperisen pleaded not guilty.
During the trial, around 20 witnesses appeared before the Court including a French eyewitness who was a former inmate of the Pavón prison, representatives of the Guatemalan military and police, CCIG’s investigators, a forensic pathologist, Sperisen’s subordinates in the PNC, and the former Mayor of Guatemala City. The OPCG requested a life imprisonment for Sperisen.
The Defence requested Sperisen’s acquittal on the assertion that all the incriminating testimonies heard during the trial were false.
On 6 June 2014, Sperisen was convicted of being a co-perpetrator in the commission of six murders and a direct perpetrator of one murder in the Pavón detention centre near Guatemala City. He was sentenced to life-imprisonment due to the gravity of the acts, the number of victims, the defendant’s lack of empathy and lack of awareness of the seriousness of his actions.
However, Sperisen was acquitted on the charges of murders in relation to the killings of El Infiernito prison escapees pursuant to the Gavilan plan. The judges decided that the t evidence was insufficient.
Sperisen appealed the judgment. The appeal trial took place between the 4 and 8 May 2015 before the Criminal Chamber of Appeal and Revision of Geneva.
On 12 May 2015, in the operative part of the decision, the Geneva Court of Appeal rejected Sperisen’s appeal and upheld the murder conviction and life-imprisonment sentence. The sentence was officially published in its judgment of the 12 July 2015. Following the verdict of the first instance, the Chamber sentenced Sperisen for the seven extra-judicial killings committed in the Pavon detention centre. Moreover, the Chamber of Appeal identified enough proofs to declare Sperisen guilty of the murder of three escapees from El Infiernito prison. The Chamber convicted Sperisen as a co-perpetrator in the killings but has refused to declare him the direct perpetrator of the acts.
On 12 July 2015, Sperisen appealed the decision to the Swiss Federal Court claiming several violations of his fair trial rights. Specifically, the defendant claimed procedural violations in the hearing of witnesses; insufficient reasoning in the judgement and arbitrary evaluation of evidence.
On 12 June 2017, the Swiss Federal Court rejected his request for parole.
On 29 June 2017, the Swiss Federal Court overturned the judgment of the Criminal Chamber of Appeal and Revision of Geneva and ordered a re-trial. The federal judges recognized that extrajudicial executions were indeed committed by a commando composed of police forces. However, they considered that procedural flaws took place, in particular concerning the hearing of witnesses. These flaws could have violated the defendant’s right to fair trial.
On 19 July 2017, the Court of Appeal of Geneva refused to release Sperisen on the basis of the seriousness of the well-founded accusations and the continuing risk of absconding.
On 20 September 2017, the Swiss Federal Court allowed the release of Erwin Sperisen pending his re-trial. On 25 September 2017, he was released and placed under house arrest.
On 11 October 2017, Sperisen filed a new motion requesting the recusal of the Judge Cambi Favre-Bulle, Presiding judge of the Court of Appeal. On 3 November 2017, his motion was rejected. Sperisen appealed this decision to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.
His new trial took place in April 2018 in Geneva. The public prosecutor requested a life imprisonment for his alleged participation in 2006 in the assassination of several detainees in the Pavon prison. Alternatively, the prosecutor requested 15 years of imprisonment for Erwin Sperisen in case the court decided to convict him merely for complicity in these murders. The defense pleaded for his acquittal.
On 27 April 2018, the judges of the Criminal Chamber of Appeal and Revision of Geneva convicted Erwin Sperisen to a penalty of 15 years of-imprisonment. They found him guilty of complicity in the extra-judicial killings of seven inmates of the Pavon prison. Following this judgment, Erwin Sperisen has not been detained but substitutive measures which were decided upon by the Swiss Federal Court on 20 September 2017, have been maintained. He is therefore serving his sentence under house arrest.
He appealed the decision to the Swiss Federal Court.
Erwin Sperisen’s case marks the first time that a Swiss citizen was tried for severe crimes committed in a country which has a history of impunity.
THE CIVIL WAR (1960-1996)
Between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala was embroiled in a civil war that resulted in approximately 250 000 victims (deaths and disappearances). The war ended following a peace agreement signed on 29 December 1996.
The civil war, which would last for 36 years, began in 1960 when young defiant officials and countrymen revolted against the dictatorial regime. Until 1982, either military or pro military governments ruled over the country.
In 1978, General Fernándo Romeo Lucas García became the president of Guatemala. It was during his presidency that the first large-scale massacre of the Mayan population took place.
In 1982, General Efraín Ríos Montt came to power following a coup d’état. He set up the so-called Civil Defense Patrols (PAC) made up of 900 000 militia members who were forcibly recruited by the army in order to fight against the guerrilla groups. He intensified the scorched earth policy, tortures and enforced disappearances. More than 45 000 people fled to Mexico where they stayed in refugee camps in Chiapas and Tabasco. In response, 6 000 soldiers from the four main guerrilla groups (EGP, ORPA, FAR and PGT) unified to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). From this point onwards, the violence reached the threshold of a full-fledged civil war.
Ríos Montt’s brief presidency (from 1982 to 1983) is considered to be the most violent period of the conflict. During this period, 440 Mayan villages were completely destroyed, and 200 000 Mayan people were killed in extremely cruel attacks (such as; amputation, impalement and torture to death). Although the (left-wing) guerrilla forces and the (right-wing) death squads had committed summary executions, forced disappearances and had tortured civilians, the majority of human rights violations (93%) were committed by the Guatemalan army and by the PACs under its control.
In 1986, free elections were organised at last. Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo of the Christian Democratic Party won and became a president of the country. It was not until 1996, however, that a peace agreement was signed between the government and the guerrilla groups, putting an end to theconflict that had lasted for 36 years.
THE COMMISSION FOR HISTORICAL CLARIFICATION (CEH)
In June 1994, under the Oslo Accords, a truth commission was created. It iis called the Guatemalan “Commission for Historical Clarification”. Its aim was to investigate human rights violations in relation to the armed conflict and to prepare a report covering these violations and their causes. The Commission also aimed to make specific recommendations to “encourage national peace and harmony in Guatemala”. After having listened to thousands of accounts and having unearthed several clandestine burial sites, the Commission published a final report in February 1999, titled “Silent memories”.
In its report, the CEH accounted for about 200 000 deaths, 50 000 disappearances, one million internally displaced refugees and more than 600 devastated communities. The majority of crimes (91%) were committed during the regimes of General Romes Lucas García (1978-1982) and General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983).
The facts established by this report have been used on a number of occasions during the trials of perpetrators of human rights violations, particularly that of Felipe Cusanero Coj. A former paramilitary officer, Felipe Cusanero Coj was the first person to be tried for the forced disappearances of civilians during the civil war.
The “Silent memories” by CEH was followed by another report, “Never again”, published on 24 April 1998 as part of the inter-diocese Recovery of Historical Memory project (REMHI), led by the Catholic Church. The report drew the same conclusions as the CEH.
THE INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION AGAINST IMPUNITY IN GUATEMALA (CICIG).
On 12 December 2006, an agreement signed between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government established the CICIG. It is an independent body that aims to assist the Guatemalan office of the prosecutor, the national police and other institutions involved in the investigation of sensitive cases, as well as working to dismantle illegal security groups. The CICIG has the right to initiate investigations proprio motu.
The CICIG’s investigations have led to the issuance of 18 arrest warrants, notably for Javier Figueroa and Erwin Sperisen.