Nicaragua Army Chief Is Snared in Scandal Over Boy's Shooting
CULTURE OF CONFRONTATION
MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — A PHOTO of 16-year-old Jean Paul Genie appears every day on page 3 of La Prensa, a Managua newspaper. Next to it is the number of days since his murder and the question: "Where is the justice?"
On Oct. 28, 1990, the teenager allegedly was shot while trying to pass the motorcade of Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra, head of the Nicaraguan Army. Two weeks later, a police officer investigating the case was killed in what police describe as an "accidental" shooting. In July 1992, a criminal court judge indicted General Ortega for a possible coverup of the Genie murder and ruled his eight bodyguards be prosecuted for the boy's death.
"This could be Humberto Ortega's Watergate," says political scientist Oscar Rene Vargas. "He made a mistake by not confronting this from the beginning."
Ortega, whose brother Daniel leads the Sandinistas and is a former president, has been President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's most controversial appointment since taking office in 1990.
General Ortega ruled the Army under the 1979-1990 Sandinista rule, and prominent members of Mrs. Chamorro's own party have strongly objected to his continued role. But Chamorro sees Ortega as crucial to reducing the size of the Sandinista-run military as well as keeping peace between her government and the Sandinistas.
Nicaragua's judicial system has shown only intermittent interest in tackling the case. While finding there was sufficient evidence for a trial, the civilian judge effectively passed the buck by ruling that a military court should handle it. The family now is appealing to the Supreme Court.
On Nov. 6, a United States congressional committee on human rights sent a letter to Chamorro expressing their concern that, "If this case is tried in a military court the result will most likely be a miscarriage of justice." Human rights groups also question whether the military will fairly judge its own commander.
The actions of the Army to date support such doubts. For example, police were denied access to Army logs covering the comings and goings of military vehicles and the issuing of weapons. The victim's car was hit by 51 rounds from AK-47 rifles. And two months after the incident, the log books were burned as part of routine maintenance. Investigators were not permitted to examine the vehicles used by Ortega's caravan, which were sold shortly afterward. Ortega has refused to be questioned or interviewed abou t the incident.
An investigation by Venezuelan police, requested by Nicaragua's National Assembly, names Ortega and his bodyguards as prime suspects. But Army spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Wheelock Roman calls the findings "insustainable conclusions by a group of foreigners." This report and other evidence gathered by civilian investigators would be inadmissible in a military tribunal.
The question of jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed by military officials is being confronted throughout Latin America. Countries long governed by military juntas are now attempting - with mixed results - to set new legal precedents and rewrite their constitutions to bring the military and judicial branches under fuller control of democratically elected civilian governments.
"Justice in our case will be very hard to attain," admits Raymond Genie, the boy's father. "But we are committed to fight against a military mentality that continues to want to manage the justice system."
Mr. Genie, who has received death threats for pursuing the case, questions the Watergate comparison. "For this to be Ortega's Watergate, there needs to be the will on the part of the people and the Nicaraguan government to listen and get at the truth. So far, this has been a solo fight."