RIP Sister Dianna Ortiz – Catholic Herald

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Sr. Dianna Ortiz OSU, undated photo courtesy of the Ursuline Sisters of St. Joseph

Sister Dianna Ortiz, a prominent human rights activist who has participated in a number of major protests that helped expose US documents exposing American involvement in human rights abuses in Guatemala, died of cancer at the age of 62.

Members of the Guatemalan military In 1989 Sr. Ortiz was kidnapped, raped and tortured. Initially contested by US officials and the Guatemalan President, tThe story of their captivity Headlines around the world when she claimed an American was involved in her ordeal.

Ortiz, a sister of the Ursuline Order and a US citizen, traveled to the western highlands of Guatemala in 1987 to teach local children and teach them Bible studies. Ortiz had arrived in the middle of the decade-long civil war that had been waged between government forces and Marxist rebel groups. An estimated 200,000 people were killed during the conflict, many of whom "disappeared" or were murdered in a campaign of state violence against civilians.

Over the next two years, Ortiz received numerous anonymous and threatening letters intimidating her into leaving the country. "I was a US citizen and assumed my citizenship would protect me," she told NPR, "but I've learned that it doesn't."

On November 2, 1989, she was abducted from the gardens of the Posada de Belen, a religious center in the city of Antigua.

She was taken to a warehouse in a police car, where her abductors interrogated her for her work with indigenous communities – suspected of left-wing compassion – before blindfolding her and raping her repeatedly.

Her abductors burned her with cigarettes during interrogation and accused her of planning to meet "subversives". The doctor who examined Ortiz after her escape found over 100 burns on her body.

According to Ortiz, her torture stopped after an American intervened. The man she called Alejandro swore in English before returning in Spanish to order her release and evict her. He apologized and told her that her detention was a case of false identity.

Ortiz managed to escape the car when it stopped in traffic. She was in Guatemala City, hiding in a local's house before reaching out to her religious group to pick her up. She returned to the United States within 48 hours of escaping.

After her ordeal, Ortiz tried hard to remember her life outside Guatemala and no longer recognized any friends or family. When she discovered she was pregnant because of the rape, she aborted the child.

"I felt I had no choice," she told the human rights organization Robert F. Kennedy. "If I had to grow inside of what the torturers left me, I would have died."

She filed cases in Guatemalan and US courts. In 1995, a US federal judge ordered former Guatemalan Defense Secretary and retired General Héctor Gramajo, Ortiz and eight Guatemalans, whose families and friends had been killed by Guatemalan soldiers, to pay $ 47.5 million in damages. Neither Ortiz nor her co-plaintiffs received their share.

The following year she went on a hunger strike in front of the White House and successfully pressured the US to release documents relating to her involvement in Guatemala.

Though heavily edited, the stream of documents showed that the US was involved in equipping and training the Guatemalan security forces who had committed genocide during the civil war of the 1960s.

In another case, which she took to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the panel found that the Guatemalan military had violated the American Convention on Human Rights.

In 2002, Ortiz and human rights attorney Patricia Davis wrote, The Eyes of the Blindfold: My Journey from Torture to Truth, a memoir about their experiences, their struggle for faith, and their attempt at healing.

In 1994, Ortiz began working with human rights groups, including the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission in Washington, to create the Missing Coalition and the Coalition in Support of Torture and Survivors. Last year she became deputy general manager of Pax Christi USA, the American branch of the international Catholic peace movement.

She died on February 19 in hospice care in Washington after 43 years in the Ursuline Order. She was born on September 2, 1958 and was one of eight siblings. She is survived by her mother, four brothers and two sisters.

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