Erwin Sperisen sentenced: NGOs welcome an important step in fighting impunity
Nearly seven years ago, after a long-term effort, several NGOs denounced Erwin Sperisen to the Swiss authorities by stressing his responsibility in numerous and serious human rights violations. The Geneva Court rendered a significant judgment today, condemning the former Chief of Police of Guatemala to a life-sentence for 7 extrajudicial executions in 2006 in Guatemala. This conviction sends a strong signal that perpetrators of serious crimes – as high-ranking as they may be – are not immune from criminal sanctions; their victims – regardless of their origins – deserve to receive justice.
After a three-weeks trial and two days of deliberation, the Geneva Criminal Court rendered its verdict on June 6, 2014, condemning Erwin Sperisen to a life-sentence for the murder of seven inmates in 2006 while regaining control of the Pavón prison in Guatemala. Erwin Sperisen, however, is acquitted of his participation in the executions of fugitives from the El Infiernito prison, although the Court acknowledged the Guatemalan police’s cold blood killings of the inmates.
In one voice, TRIAL (Track Impunity Always), the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT), the Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-Switzerland) and the Communauté Genevoise d’Action Syndicale (CGAS) hailed the conviction.
Philip Grant, Director TRIAL: “Today’s ruling shows that the ideal of justice pursued by so many, in Switzerland and in Guatemala, can be achieved. Despite the distance, despite the complexity of the case and despite intimidation, the determination of the many actors, here and there, has enabled justice to be served. The fight against impunity and for human dignity are the winners of today’s verdict.”
Gerald Staberock, OMCT Director: “Erwin Sperisen’s judgment is a historical moment, not only for the Geneva justice system, but also on a broader scale. His conviction demonstrates that impunity is no longer master, and that those responsible for such crimes can and should be punished. We hope that this judgment will also be a clear signal to the Guatemalan authorities that they should make every effort to end impunity and ensure that victims of human rights violations have access to impartial justice.”
Bettina Ryser, Secretary General of ACAT-Switzerland: “To date, of the 19 persons against whom Guatemala issued arrest warrants for these extrajudicial executions, five individuals – including Erwin Sperisen – have been convicted. Gradually, the courage of witnesses, victims, authorities and NGOs in Guatemala is paying off, even if the climate remains oppressive for both victims and human rights defenders. We hope that this verdict will be a step forward followed by many others in the fight against impunity.”
Chantal Woodtli and Claude Reymond of CGAS: “Carlos Vielman, former Guatemalan Minister of Interior and Erwin Sperisen’s direct superior, is currently under investigation in Spain. We hope that Mr. Sperisen’s conviction will quickly open the way for Mr. Vielmann’s trial in Spain.”
The trial was held from May 15 to June 6, 2014 before the Geneva Criminal Court, composed of seven judges. About 15 witnesses were called to testify during the two weeks of hearings. Among them, a French eyewitness – a former inmate of the Pavón prison; representatives of the Guatemalan military and police; investigators of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG); a forensic pathologist; subordinates of Mr. Sperisen, as well as the former Mayor of Guatemala City. The Prosecutor, Yves Bertossa requested a guilty verdict and a sentence of life in prison, while Alexandra Lopez and Alec Reymond’s, lawyers representing the plaintiff (the mother of one of the victims) followed with pleas for justice. The defence attorneys, Florian Baier and Giorgio Campa pleaded for acquittal. Today’s judgement can still be appealed.
The Procedure and the arrest
Seven years ago, a coalition of NGOs denounced Erwin Sperisen to the judicial authorities for atrocities committed between 2004 and 2007, including the extra-judicial killings for which Mr. Sperisen was being tried. This coalition of NGOs campaigned tirelessly to Geneva’s prosecuting authorities for an investigation against this dual Swiss-Guatemalan national who lives in Geneva. On August 31, 2012, under the orders of Geneva’s Attorney General, Erwin Sperisen was finally arrested.
As a Swiss citizen, Erwin Sperisen could not be extradited to Guatemala. Therefore, the canton of Geneva was alone competent to investigate the case. During the preliminary hearings, Mr. Sperisen was heard 11 times by Geneva’s Attorney Genera. 14 witnesses traveled from France, Guatemala and Spain and four rogatory commissions (international legal assistance requests) were sent to Austria, Spain and Guatemala. The investigation convinced the Geneva Prosecutor of Erwin Sperisen’s criminal responsibility. In January 2014, he decided to bring the accused before Geneva’s Criminal Court for the murder of 10 people in Guatemala, including the summary execution of seven detainees during a military operation at Pavón prison in September 2006, as well as that of three inmates who escaped from the Infiernito prison in 2005.
This ruling comes at a crucial time in Guatemala: only a year ago, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court annulled the sentence against former President Efraín Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity and genocide. Several important figures of the judiciary have also been replaced or sanctioned. The adoption of recent resolutions restricts even further the possibility for the conflict’s victims to obtain justice (see Amnesty International’s press release for more details). Human rights defenders all agree that intimidation practices and subordination have returned. Today Impunity reigns in Guatemala.