Honduras under fire for rights abuses. US report and Inter-American Court case highlight growing problem

While an international court in Costa Rica judges the Honduran government's complicity in past death squad activity, the United States is scheduled this week to release a critical evaluation of Honduras's human rights record for 1987. Both the trial and the report come as some diplomats and other observers say they believe the human rights situation in Honduras is worsening. As an example of the deterioration, many point to the murders earlier this month of two witnesses in the court case.

``The situation has gotten worse since the signing of Esquipulas II,'' said a Western diplomat here, referring to the formal name of the Central American peace plan. It ``called for a process of democratization which would cause a loss of power for the military, so they invent an internal enemy.''

While many acknowledge the human rights situation in Honduras is worsening, all say the abuses pale in comparison with those in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala, where political murders are an almost daily occurence. And few believe rights abuses have reached the level of 1982 through 1984, when Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Mart'inez, a fierce anticommunist, led the Honduran military. During General Alvarez's reign, an estimated 120 people were allegedly killed by Honduran death squads.

The Western diplomat says that in the months following the Aug. 7 signing of the peace plan, the Honduran security forces have cracked down on political activities, especially in rural areas where they have increasingly sided with landowners in disputes with peasant activists.

A second Western diplomat says tension has risen throughout region since the peace plan's signing. ``When people [military and insurgents] feel insecure they want to do something. ... In Nicaragua and El Salvador it has worked itself out with a marked step-up in military activity. In Honduras, where there is no war, it is the same, but on a smaller scale.''

The case by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights - a judicial arm of the Organization of American States - was brought against Honduras to determine if the government was responsible for the disappearance of two Hondurans and two Costa Ricans in Honduras in the early 1980s.

The families of the disappeared believe the victims were captured and later killed by Army death squads, a charge the Honduran military denies.

But the trial has greater significance because it is the first time any government has accepted the full jurisdiction of the court and allowed itself to be tried. While the court is not expected to reach a verdict in the case for several months, Honduras's President said last week that his government would accept the court's finding.

Earlier this month, two witnesses in the trial were murdered: one, Sgt. Jos'e Isa'ias Vilorio, before he could testify; the other, Miguel Angel Pav'on, the regional head of the independent Honduran Human Rights Commission, was the first witness. He testified last October.

No one has claimed responsibility for the murders, although after the first killing on Jan. 5, the flag of a Honduran guerrilla group was draped over the body. The victim, Vilorio, was thought to be a member of a death squad. He was scheduled to testify Jan. 18.

Some diplomats say they believe the flag was placed there by a government death squad that wanted to shift the blame to the guerrillas. Others say a leftist organization was responsible for the killing, hoping his death would embarrass the government.

The second Western diplomat said he felt that politically there was reason to suspect leftist involvement in the killings, but that only the Honduran military had the capability of carrying out the murders.

The US human rights report, which focuses exclusively on events in 1987, is believed to mainly criticize Honduras for the failure of some institutions, like the police, to observe human rights. A diplomat familiar with the report's contents said several months ago when it was being prepared, that it did not focus on abuses committed by increasingly repressive Honduran security forces; rather it pointed out that the abuses were committed because the security forces were poorly trained.

One case likely to be cited was the September killing of two supposed leftists in the town of San Pedro Sula. According to the police version, the two were riding in a pick-up truck when police tried to arrest them and they fired at police. The police fired back, killing them both.

But some witnesses disputed the official version, although no specific counter charges were made.

US officials here refuse to discuss the report's contents before it is formally published. The report, prepared for each country that gets US aid, is normally scheduled for release in late January, but past Honduran reports have not been released until mid-February.

``The times of Alvarez have never gone away,'' said Ram'on Custodio, head of the Human Rights Commission. Dr. Custodio helped prepare the case in Costa Rica. In 1987, he said, there were 107 extra-judicial killings in Honduras by government security forces. Last week, Custodio was nervous. He said he felt he was a potential target of the death squad that he said killed Pav'on.

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