Court ruling attacks Guatemala for failure to tackle crimes against women

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 31 July 2014 16:34 GMT

Gang members sit behind glass in a iGuatemala City court dealing with gender-based crimes while hearing their sentence for kidnapping and raping 14 women. Picture July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

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Guatemala has 3rd highest rate of femicide in the world, attempts to curb violence against women are weak

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A landmark ruling handed down by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights this week put the spotlight on the high level of violence against women in Guatemala, a country with one of the highest femicide rates in the world.

The ruling addressed the case of teenager Maria Isabel Veliz, who was kidnapped in Guatemala City in December 2001 and whose body was found days later.

The 15-year-old had been raped, her hands and feet bound with barbed wire. She had been stabbed, strangled and put in a bag. Her face was disfigured from being punched, there was a rope round her neck and her nails were bent back.

The investigation into her killing was delayed so many times that the girl’s mother, Rosa Elvira, took the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2004 and later to the Inter-American Court, the regional human rights court for the Americas.

Nearly 13 years later, no one has been punished for the crime.

The court ruled this week that the Guatemalan authorities had failed to protect Veliz’s right to life, and her family’s right to a fair judicial process and proper investigation. It also ruled that the government had failed to tackle the ingrained culture of violence and discrimination against women that permeates Guatemalan society, and that this had led to a flawed investigation by the prosecutor’s office.

”Gender stereotypes [in Guatemala] had a negative influence on the investigation in that they laid the blame [for the murder] on the victim and her family, closing off other lines of investigation,” the court ruling said.

Hundreds of women are killed in Guatemala every year. Many victims of femicide - the murder of a woman by a man because of her gender - show signs of torture, rape and mutilation. Last year, 522 women were killed in Guatemala, according to government figures.

“This is a hugely important moment marking the legal responsibility of a government to create and maintain an environment where women and girls are protected from violence and where there is accountability when violations occur,” Sebastian Elgueta, Guatemala researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement referring to the recent court ruling.

“The lessons of this case will only be learnt once the deaths of all women and girls murdered in Guatemala are taken seriously and concrete steps are taken to prevent violence against women,” he added.

Guatemala’s dysfunctional justice system and high level of impunity surrounding crimes against women are among reasons for the high femicide rate, experts say.

Guatemala has the third highest rate of femicide in the world, according to a 2012 report by the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project in Geneva based on figures from 2004 to 2009.

Since 2008, Guatemala has approved a number of laws and set up institutions to deal exclusively with femicides, from special tribunals and police task forces, to a presidential commission on femicide (COPAF). Under Guatemalan law, femicide is a specific crime, carrying a prison sentence of 25 to 50 years.

In its ruling, the Inter-American Court noted such attempts by the government to address violence against women but said the “majority of violent acts that lead to the deaths of women remain unpunished”.

The court ordered the government to conduct an investigation to punish those responsible for the death of Veliz and to strengthen laws protecting women and girls against violence.

(Editing by Tim Pearce; timothy.pearce@thomsonreuters.com

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