In Court

Justice at last in sight in the case of the murdered and disappeared

Press release 17 May 2022

Belgian Scheutists

On 17 May 2022, the Brussels’ Council Chamber will meet to review the investigation into the murder and kidnapping of Belgian religious persons in Guatemala. The facts date back more than 40 years.  The surviving relatives are still counting on justice.

Because crimes against humanity never die: not in Belgium, not in Guatemala.

Complaint to the Belgian justice system

More than 40 years ago, during the civil war, the Scheutists Walter Voordeckers, Ward Capiau and Serge Berten became victims of the repression in Guatemala. Their fate was horribly fatal; they were murdered or abducted and murdered. The question has always been who gave the order, who was at the proverbial ‘buttons’.

Attempts to file a complaint in Guatemala produced very little result. That is why the Voordeckers and Berten families went to the Belgian courts. Since 1999, crimes against humanity committed in another country can also be prosecuted in Belgium.

On 25 January 2001, through their lawyers Mr Luc Walleyn and Mr Michaël Verhaeghe, they filed a complaint with a civil action before investigating judge Bulthé in Brussels. This complaint initiated a judicial investigation into the murder of Walter Voordeckers and the disappearance of Serge Berten in Guatemala, respectively on 12 May 1980 and 19 January 1982. The family of Ward Capiau, who was murdered on 22 October 1981, joined the demand for a judicial investigation. The Congregation of Scheut also took a civil stand.

The complaint was directed against the persons who bore responsibility from both a political and military point of view and who clearly had everything to gain from maintaining their grip on power.

Judicial investigation in a crucial phase

An investigating judge was appointed, who went to Guatemala himself to investigate, and many documents and data were collected.  It took a long time. Translations of the Spanish language were long in coming. The investigating judge was succeeded by a colleague.

Because of the secrecy of the investigation, and so as not to obstruct his own case, there was little room for external communication during the entire period.

Until now. Today, 17 May 2022, at the request of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the investigation is being reviewed by the Trial Chamber. If the chamber decides to refer the case to the Chamber of Indictment, an assize court trial will be organised.

There, the investigation would be evaluated and the parties would be heard. 

The families are hoping for a conviction of those ultimately responsible for the crimes.

Impunity

During Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, some 200 000 people were murdered or ‘disappeared’. In the context of the Cold War, anti-communist rhetoric was used to impose extreme restrictions on the human rights of the Guatemalan people.

Inspired by liberation theology, young Belgian missionaries in Guatemala took the side of the oppressed, resisting the exploitation of agricultural labourers and indigenous farmers on the plantations of large landowners.

In the early 1980s, this became fatal for three of them: Walter Voordeckers, Ward Capiau and Serge Berten. They were respectively murdered and disappeared.

Eventually, the civil war ended, but the repression remained, it only got a different name.

The power in the country is still in the hands of corrupt politicians who are directed by (ex-)military, rich (agro-)industrialists and the drug mafia. They have every interest in maintaining their grip on the population through intimidation, violence and institutional impunity.

Guatebelga

In 1997, under the impetus of the Serge Berten Committee in Menen, the families of Belgian missionaries left for Guatemala with sympathisers, to find out more about their relatives.

Many government institutions were visited, but it soon became clear that there was little truth to be found. 

The visit was a confrontation for the families, but one that was transformed into action: the decision was taken in 1999 to carry out a scientific study by the KU Leuven into the legal possibilities, and on the basis of this to file a complaint with the Brussels Public Prosecutor’s Office (2001).

In order to support the families, a non-profit organisation was founded, Guatebelga. While the legal investigation dragged on, they kept the story alive all the time, and from 2013 onwards also through the organisation of the Quetzal Prize for Human Rights and Democracy in Guatemala: a recognition for people and organisations who support the fight against impunity and for freedom and justice. This prize is awarded every two years.

Justice?

With their complaint, the families want the perpetrators to be called to account. But with this initiative they also want to show their solidarity with the tens of thousands of Guatemalan victims who fell during the civil war and in the period that followed.

This case is an opportunity for the Belgian families to turn a painful page, for the Guatemalans to show that they are not alone in their suffering and grief and their struggle for truth and justice. And for the dictators and tyrants to realise that they are not unapproachable and that, even if years later, they can be held accountable. This message is burningly topical, against the backdrop of armed conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Ukraine.

Genocide law

The legal basis for this complaint can be found in the Law of 16 June 1993 on the Punishment of Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law, as amended by the Law of 10 February 1999 (better known as the ‘Genocide Law’), and in customary international law. According to these sources of law, enforced disappearances and killings are crimes against humanity, insofar as they are part of a policy of systematic repression against the civilian population. The Belgian courts have the power to investigate and judge these crimes.

Press contacts

Carlos Colson – civil party (carlos.colson@telenet.be – mobile phone 0475/515594)

Raf Allaert – chairman Guatebelga (raf.allaert@telenet.be – mobile phone 0470/858997)

Michaël Verhaeghe – lawyer (michael.verhaeghe@telenet.be – mobile phone 0475/549646)

Luc Walleyn – lawyer (luc@walleyn.be – mobile phone 0475/898386)

Stephan Parmentier scientific advisor, Faculty of Law and Criminology, KU Leuven (stephan.parmentier@law.kuleuven.be – mobile phone 0498/309588)

Annexes and links