Bolivian Mennonite rape trial ends in convictions

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Sentences range from 12-and-a-half to 25 years

Ross W. Muir | Managing Editor

Eight members of the Manitoba and Riva Palacios Mennonite colonies accused of raping more than a hundred women and girls were found guilty on Aug. 25 after a two-month trial. A ninth, Jacob Neudorf Enns, escaped from the Palmasola Prison in Santa Cruz some time ago and remains a fugitive.

Seven of the accused were sentenced to 25 years after being convicted of aggravated rape; the maximum allowable under Bolivian law for this crime is 30 years. Peter Wiebe Wall, a veterinarian, was sentenced to 12-and-a-half years for his role in supplying materials to make a sedative spray normally used to anesthetize cattle, that was used to render entire families unconscious and allow the perpetrators to rape the women and girls, ranging in age from eight to 60. All eight accused, who range in age from 20 to 48, pleaded not guilty.

As many as 130 women and girls claim they were raped, but because of the sedative used, finding eye witnesses and hard evidence of the crimes—believed to have taken place from 2005-09—was difficult to come by.

This has led some to question if justice was, in fact, served.

Jake Heppner of Steinbach, Man, spent eight weeks in Bolivia investigating colony life in late 2009 and early 2010. In a February 2010 report of his trip, he wrote, “Everyone is aware the Bolivian court system is plagued by endemic corruption that is fuelled by bribe money. Since the colony has much more economic clout than those accused, the chance of an unfair conviction . . . is quite possible.” Heppner reported that, according to Bolivian law, prisoners are not supposed to remain in custody longer than six months without a trial. “Many believe that [alleged bribes by colony leaders totalling more than $100,000 US] is what is keeping them in jail,” he wrote, adding, “I tend to agree.”

Canadian Carl Zacharias, who produces the weekly Low German radio program, Zacharias Fetalt (Zacharias Speaks), and David Janzen, a staff member of the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference in Bolivia, have their doubts.

“[One defendant] told me several times that he is simply not guilty of the crime and that some day when we will be standing on the throne of judgment everyone will ses that he was innocent,” Zacharias told Mennonite Weekly Review, claiming that two men from Manitoba Colony told him that the rapes have continued following the arrests in 2009. In the same article, Janzen said, “Some have admitted to many things they have done in the past, but insist to this day they have not done the things they are charged with today.”

In an Aug. 17 Time Magazine article, defence attorney Luis Loza said his clients’ confessions to colony leaders were made “only under threat of lynching.” In the article, a husband and father of two of the victims said the accused “will be lynched” if they are acquitted and returned to the colony.

In fact, as reported in the Oct. 19, 2009, issue of Canadian Mennonite, Franz Wieler Kloss died a few days after being hung from a pole by his arms for nine hours by colony members who suspected him of having taken part in the mass rapes.

What of the victims?
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Bolivia has sought to help the colonists improve their lives, but colony leaders have rebuffed some attempts. Heppner’s 2010 report mentioned a conversation he had with a Manitoba Colony leader about getting help for the rape victims; the bishop told him that help was not required since they were unconscious during the attacks.

John Janzen, MCC Canada’s Low German coordinator, confirmed the reluctance of the colony leaders to accept assistance. “MCC has longstanding experience in supporting both victims and perpetrators of crimes,” he said. “MCC has offered to develop these programs in Low German communities in Bolivia, but until now the Mennonite churches in communities in Bolivia have declined this type of assistance.”

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, who reported on the trial for the Christian Science Monitor News Service, stated that “the crime, the way the community has responded to it, and the trial itself point to much deeper problems for women in such reclusive sects.” She quoted Abe Warkentin, founding editor of Die Mennonitische Post, as saying, “Women are not seen as equal to men in these colonies, and this will continue to lead to ever more social problems.”

This is not good news for women like Susana Banman, one of the victims who spoke to Friedman-Rudovsky. “Even still, I can’t sleep through the night,” she told the reporter, pleading with her, “I’d like to speak to someone [about the experience].” According to Friedman-Rudovsky, none of the victims have had the opportunity to speak to a psychologist.

“We will be at peace when there is a guilty verdict,” Abraham Wall Enns, the Manitoba Colony’s head civic leader in 2009, told Friedman-Rudovsky. For the colonies’ men, maybe; the women, perhaps not so much.

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