Nicaraguan Amnesty Put to Test

Investigation unearths collective graves, stirs concern over law pardoning rights violators

FOR nine years, Nicaraguans fought brother against brother. During that wrenching civil war, which ended only last year, allegations of human rights violations were leveled most readily against the United States-backed contra forces.

But now, campesinos (farmers) who had feared to speak out while the Sandinista National Liberation Front remained in power, are revealing evidence of brutal human rights violations by the Marxist Sandinista military and state security police.

The country has tried hard to put the war behind it. An amnesty law was passed last year which pardoned virtually all crimes during the war. But recent discoveries of collective grave sites may sorely test the will of the government to bury the past.

On July 12, 1985, six unarmed members of Marcia Vargas Herrera's family were murdered. Her parents, brother, sister, and two nephews (ages five and two) were shot by soldiers of the Sandinista People's Army, she says.

The tombstone marking their collective grave is no more than the remains of a wooden shack, rotting on a remote hilltop close to the Honduras border. It marks the site of the Los Angeles massacre, one of at least 10 hidden burial sites being investigated by the Nicaraguan Association Pro Human Rights, a nongovernment organization.

``I think we've only uncovered the top of a hidden mountain,'' says Marta Patricia Baltodano, a lawyer and director of the association. As more unmarked burial plots are discovered, pressure is increasing in Nicaragua, and outside it, to uncover not just the bones but the truth behind these killings.

According to the Nicaraguan Defense Ministry, Americas Watch sent a letter to President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in November, opposing a law passed by her government that grants amnesty both to contras and to the Sandinistas who may be connected to multiple murders.

The Washington-based human rights group argued in its letter that even if such a pardon remains law, it should not prevent an investigation.

``If those responsible can't be criminally punished, they should at least be identified and thrown out of the security force,'' says Juan M'endez, executive director of Americas Watch. Others in Nicaragua echo a similar sentiment.

``I can forgive you for a crime,'' says a Nicaraguan lawyer, who asked for anonymity. ``But that doesn't mean you don't have to pay for wrong doing. Justice is a measure of the people's conscience. If we don't have it, we won't be able to rebuild this country.''

The Nicaraguan Association Pro Human Rights has investigated and confirmed four collective graves in the last six months. At least six more are under investigation. Almost weekly, according to the rights group, allegations of new sites turn up as people begin to talk openly about what went on during the war. But government and pro-Sandinista officials question Ms. Baltodano's impartiality. For several years during the war, she directed a US-funded effort to prevent human rights violations by the contras. And Wilma Nunez, head of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (and former director of the Sandinista government's human rights commission) raises questions about the adequacy of the scientific methods used to identify bodies exhumed at Mokor'on, one of the first sites discovered.

At the Mokor'on site, 11 skeletons were reported to be the remains of draft evaders who disappeared after being arrested by Sandinista police. Dr. Nunez says the grave site, which was reported to be a former Sandinista military base, was actually a combat zone overrun several times by contras.

``There's no question Marta Patricia is anti-Sandinista. But her work is professional and credible,'' counters Mr. M'endez at Americas Watch. ``What she reports has to be listened to. I would urge the Nicaraguan government to take her findings seriously.''

Inquiries by the Nicaraguan National Assembly have stalled. And the Chamorro government has chosen not to initiate its own study on this politically explosive issue. Instead, it has asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate the graves. The Nicaraguan government and the commission are trying to agree on ground rules for the investigation.

For some, the need to proceed with an investigation surmounts the tedious political progress.

``It's important,'' says the Nicaraguan lawyer, ``to draw the line between acts of war and crimes committed in the name of war.''

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