Leuven, 18 December 2023 (Text of the judgment)

Historic assize trial against those responsible for crimes against humanity committed on Belgian missionaries in Guatemala – Civil parties satisfied with life imprisonment and immediate arrest of five accused

Last Thursday 14 December, after 11 days of hearings, the jury in Leuven reached a final verdict in the historic assize trial on the murder and kidnapping of four Belgian missionaries in Guatemala in the 1980s. Scheutists Walter Voordeckers, Ward Capiau, Paul Schildermans and
Serge Berten were victims of the fierce repression in Guatemala between May 1980 and January 1982, and were murdered and kidnapped respectively. According to the 1999 Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) report, a total of 200,000 Guatemalans were killed during the civil war between 1962 and 1996, and 45,000 went missing.
Efforts by the relatives of the Belgian victims to have judicial investigations launched in Guatemala remained unsuccessful. They therefore opted for proceedings in Belgium, where the principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’ for international crimes had been incorporated into legislation in the 1990s. On that basis, in January 2001, the relatives of Walter Voordeckers and Serge Berten filed a complaint with civil action before the investigating judge in Brussels, and Ward Capiau’s family and the Congregation of Scheut (CICM) later joined them. The judicial investigation lasted 21 years, until 2022, after which first the Council Chamber and then the Indictment Chamber referred the case to the Assize Court of Flemish Brabant.

In the indictment, the Prosecutor targeted five leading figures in Guatemala’s political and military apparatus in the 1980s who could be considered intellectual perpetrators of crimes against humanity. None of them was physically present or represented, and the trial took place in their absence, in accordance with Belgian law. The Assize Court sentenced all to life imprisonment and ordered their immediate arrest. It also sentenced them to court costs.

The five convicted are:

  • Angel Aníbal Guevara Rodriguez, then defence minister; for the murder of Walter Voordeckers;
  • Donaldo Alvarez Ruiz, then interior minister; for the murder of Walter Voordeckers and Ward Capiau, the capture and torture of Paul Schildermans, and the enforced disappearance of Serge Berten;
  • Pedro García Arredondo, then head of the police secret service ‘Comando 6’; for the murder of Walter Voordeckers and Ward Capiau, the capture and torture of Paul Schildermans, and the enforced disappearance of Serge Berten;
  • Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, then chief of staff of the army; for the murder of Ward Capiau, the capture and torture of Paul Schildermans, and the enforced disappearance of Serge Berten;
  • Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, then chief of the intelligence directorate of the army general staff; for the murder of Ward Capiau, the capture and torture of Paul Schildermans, and the enforced disappearance of Serge Berten.

Since an accusation of enforced disappearance technically excludes that of murder, and since Serge Berten’s body could never be found, the accusation of Serge’s murder was ultimately not upheld by the Assize Court and technically followed an acquittal on this point for the five accused. Callejas y Callejas was acquitted for the murder of Walter Voordeckers because it
could not be sufficiently proven that he was already in office at the time.

The judgment explicitly situates the crimes against humanity by the five convicted within the framework of “a generalised or systematic attack on the civilian population” that plagued the entire country at the time.

It is also noteworthy that the Court withheld the qualification of “joint criminal enterprise” as claimed by the prosecution. In doing so, it indicated that the convicts gave effect to “a common plan to unlawfully obtain and/or maintain political control over Guatemala by, inter alia, causing units of the army, units of the national police and/or paramilitary organisations to commit crimes against humanity against persons considered opponents of the regime”.
This is a first in Belgian law.

The first two convicts are currently fugitives, while the other three are in prison or under military supervision in Guatemala. The chances of them being extradited to Belgium are slim.

Nevertheless, the civil parties react with relief and satisfaction to the assize jury’s verdict:

  • Carlos Colson (Walter Voordeckers was his uncle) said, “Besides the additional information and the conviction, I am especially impressed by the motivation of the court which also
    highlighted the suffering of the other victims, the Guatemalans, who are not protected by our law, and condemned the regime unconditionally.”
  • Johan Capiau, Ward’s brother, left the following note: “We are relieved and our thoughts are with the many brave men and women who have given their lives for a just Guatemala.”
  • Serge Berten’s brothers: “There has been a conviction almost across the board. For Serge though only on the deprivation of his freedom, not for the murder. That is because no body was ever found and they cannot prove the murder.”

The non-profit organisation Guatebelga was founded in 2002 as a support association for the family members in their search for truth and justice. It also organises activities that shape solidarity between Guatemala and Belgium, such as the biennial presentation of the Quetzal Prize for Human Rights and Democracy in Guatemala. The association also expresses its satisfaction with the assize jury verdict. It marks the end of the long search for the crimes against humanity committed against the four Belgian victims, and against the people of Guatemala. Moreover, it considers that the global fight against impunity for serious human rights violations has thus gained an important Belgian chapter.

Guatebelga warmly thanks all persons and organisations that contributed in one way or another to achieving this result. It intends to document this long quest through written and audiovisual means, for which she seeks additional financial support.

You can contribute to this goal in the following ways:

NameAccount numberRemarks
Guatebelga vzwBE69 0013 6295 4878Direct operational means
BE45 7340 1941 7789Add mention:
Amounts of 40 Euro and
higher are tax deductible in Belgium.

For more information on the assize process and the activities of Guatebelga, please contact the following:

Carlos ColsonNephew of Walter Voordeckers and civil party Secretary Guatebelga+32 475 51 55 94
Raf AllaertScheutist in Guatemala and
Chairperson Guatebelga vzw
+32 470 85 89 97
Guido De SchrijverScheutist in Guatemala and
+32 472 40 69 87
Stephan ParmentierExpert in human rights
Vice Dean for Internatioal
Relations, Faculty of Law and
Criminology, KU Leuven
+32 16 32 51 15
Michaël VerhaegheLawyer+32 475 549 646
Luc WalleynLawyer+32 475 89 83 86