Latin Court Aims to Protect Guatemalan Rights Activists

THE Guatemalan government was slapped with an embarrassing but nonbinding international "injunction" last week over its failure to protect human-rights workers.The Inter-American Court of Human Rights here issued a resolution last Thursday that requires President Jorge Serrano Elias's government to protect (and report in detail how it is protecting) the lives of 14 people. The 14 are members of the Council of Ethnic Communities Runujel Junam (CERJ), relatives of the human-rights group, and judicial officials investigating the murders of CERJ members. "This is a very expensive, time-consuming way to do this," said CERJ President Amilcar Mendez Urizar moments after the court's decision. "It indicates the rule of law doesn't exist in Guatemala. And this is just one case. There are hundreds of outstanding warrants that have not been complied with because the accused are closely linked to the state security forces." The CERJ case is the first time the court has used its powers on behalf of a human-rights group. A similar decision last year has effectively protected witnesses who saw members of the Peruvian military murder a local journalist. The court is a judicial arm of the Organization of American States. Its judges are from Argentina, Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, the United States, and Venezuela. There was no immediate indication from the Guatemalan government as to whether it would comply with the court's ruling. President Serrano, who took office in January, has pledged every effort to restore human rights. But extra-judicial killings continue increasing. A British journalist working for the Financial Times was killed last month in Guatemala City. In the CERJ case, Guatemalan judges on three separate occasions issued arrest warrants for Manuel Perebal Ajtzalam III, two of them for suspicion of murder. Mr. Ajtzalam, a former civil-patrol chief in Chunima, was wanted for the murder last year of Sebastian Velasques Mejia, a CERJ delegate. In February 1991, three other rights activists were shot near Chunima. Two died, but the third survived to identify Ajtzalam and Manuel Leon Lares. Police have twice tried to arrest them. A key tactic in the Army's 30-year war with leftist guerrillas is to supplement its forces by forming "voluntary" civil patrols. The CERJ has been an ardent defender of Guatemalans' right not to participate in civil patrols. But those who do not volunteer are often branded as guerrilla sympathizers. Just days before the International Court in Costa Rica issued its decision, the two suspects were arrested. "The Guatemala justice system is functioning," insists Miriam Cabrera Passarelli, the Guatemalan ambassador to Costa Rica. But Juan Mendez, executive director of Americas Watch, an international human-rights organization, says: "Without the pressure of this court hearing, the two suspects would still be free."

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