Students Staff

23 November 2012

‘Forced disappearance’, human rights and the struggle for transitional justice – Maritza Urrutia gives talk at firstsite

Wednesday 28 November 2012 - Talk by Maritza Urrutia at 3pm, Screening of Granito at 4pm and Roundtable Discussion from 5.30pm to 6.30pm. Location - firstsite.

A human rights lawyer who was abducted and tortured by Guatemalan security forces will give a talk on Wednesday 28 July about her case and her legal struggle to bring the state to account for her ‘forced disappearance’.

The story of Maritza Urrutia is unique in many ways as she survived her arbitrary detention and torture - unlike many other Guatemalans - and went on to continue the legal fight for human rights in the Americas.

At the time of her abduction Amnesty International was among the organisations which highlighted the plight of Maritza and her family, encouraging international action to secure her release.

She is speaking in the UK for the first time in two decades after being invited to talk at firstsite in Colchester on Wednesday 28 November to coincide with the exhibition Karmadavis: Art, Justice, Transition. The exhibition features works by Guatemalan artist Karmadavis reflecting on the struggles for justice in Guatemala, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as they try to emerge from decades of social and political unrest.

This is the first-time Urrutia has publically discussed her case in the UK for two decades. Her talk will be followed by a screening of documentary Granito by filmmaker Pamela Yates and a roundtable discussion on the themes raised by her case and the film.

Urrutia will talk about transitional justice in the context of her legal struggle against the Guatemalan state for her arbitrary detention and torture. In July 1992 she was kidnapped, held, and psychologically tortured for eight days in a secret detention centre. A decade later, her case was finally heard by the Inter American Court of Human Rights with the court calling for substantial reparations for Urrutia and her family. The case is seen as a legal landmark for holding a state to account for human rights violations.

Urrutia was abducted by Guatemalan security forces, in the morning, as she began her daily routine of taking her son to school. Some days later, in a secret location, they made her rehearse and film a video in which she admitted membership of the Ejercito Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP). Her captors forced her to denounce the EGP, with whom she had been affiliated. In return, the state offered her amnesty and released her, but failed to protect her from various groups wanting her dead. With multiple threats against her life, two weeks after her kidnap she fled to the United States.

Urrutia’s detention occurred just as the US sought greater stability in Guatemala. From the 1960s, the United States had aggravated the civil war, supported Guatemala’s repressive government, much later seeking the conflict’s negotiated end. When Urrutia took her family abroad, her son was its fourth generation forced into political exile. Many Guatemalan families experienced similar traumas during the Civil War that ended with UN-backed peace accords in 1996.

Her talk will be followed by Pamela Yates’s documentary Granito, both reflect how personal stories become part of broader movements for justice in courtrooms and in culture. Through decades of war, many tens of thousands of people disappeared. The war, which at one point became genocide, killed 300,000 people, mostly Mayan indians from the country’s Western Highlands.

The violence left deep scars in Guatemala’s national life, marking it as an important location to understand transitional justice: Granito reveals how documentary filmmaking reinforces international human rights litigation as the Spanish legal system sought to hold Guatemala’s military dictator responsible for human rights abuses.

The exhibition Karmadavis: Art, Transition, Justice has been organized throught a partnership between the Essex Collection of Art from Latin America, the Essex Transitional Justice Network, firstsite and the Department of Literature, Fillm, and Theatre Studies.

The show continues until 10 March 2013.

Press information

For more information contact the University of Essex Communications Office on 01206 874377 or e-mail:

...more news releases