Nearly eight years after sisters Helen* and Emilia* were sexually abused by a neighbor, their cause was looking hopeless. The perpetrator had fled, and their court case was languishing so badly it risked being dismissed by the judge.
But this week, in a turn of events that began at a small-town voting booth, a judge convicted the criminal who assaulted them and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. The case was one of the longest battles for justice IJM has ever fought in Bolivia.
Helen, 14, and Emilia, 10, were referred to IJM in 2009 after an older man in their community followed each of them separately to an outdoor bathroom and sexually assaulted them while their parents were away at work. Helen was 6 at the time, and Emilia was 3.
IJM’s legal team represented the girls and their dedicated parents. The sisters entered IJM’s aftercare program, which helped them heal from their trauma and prepared them to bravely testify in their trial.
'They will forget about the case'
Child sexual assault cases in Bolivia often go nowhere, thwarted by court delays and defense stall tactics that exhaust victims’ emotions and finances. The sisters’ case was no exception, over time involving three IJM attorneys and two investigators. It appeared to be stuck, hitting a new low when the perpetrator, under house arrest, fled the city at his lawyer’s recommendation.
“My lawyer said that IJM would forget about the case,” the perpetrator told an IJM investigator. “Run! They will forget about the case.”
But IJM’s team in Bolivia has a long memory. The suspect had been a fugitive for more than a year when an IJM investigator used voter records to track him to a small town roughly six hours outside of La Paz. On February 21, during a Bolivian election, the investigator spotted the man standing in line at a voting station. Police arrested him just after he cast his ballot.
At a final court hearing on Wednesday, the defendant asked for the minimum sentence of 10 years in exchange for pleading guilty. The prosecutor and judge refused, instead sentencing him to 12 years in prison.
“This was an effort of all of IJM Bolivia,” said IJM lawyer Vanessa Saravia.
Today, Helen and Emilia are thriving in school and have contagious smiles that break through occasional shyness. They have both graduated from IJM’s aftercare program and say they are excited about their futures.
During the court hearing, the sisters waited at a coffee shop with two IJM aftercare staff. When the sentence was announced, Emilia declared, “Well, that is great news!”