A trial for Guatemala's military

The case of five accused in a Catholic bishop's murder is expected to last at least three months.

Guatemalans are riveted to a high-profile murder trial here that is being seen as a landmark case for human rights.

Security is tight as the third week unfolds in a trial of three military and two other defendants accused in the killing of Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi.

Human rights activists say the case marks a milestone in a nation where the military long operated with impunity. The proceedings put Guatemala at the forefront of Latin American nations struggling toward a reckoning with their authoritarian pasts.

A champion of human rights, Gerardi was slain in 1998, two days after he released a report attributing more than 90 percent of the 200,000 deaths in Guatemala's civil war to military and paramilitary groups.

"This case is an example of how the generalized idea in Latin America that military should not have to answer for crimes is breaking down," says Manola Vela, a researcher with the liberal think tank Flacso in Guatemala City. He adds that the trial is "part of a more general trend in the region."

Others say that trend is actually a rising tide of anti-military sentiment that makes a fair trial impossible.

"This is a highly political case, and I am skeptical that it will bring to justice those who are truly guilty," says Hector Lopez Bonilla, a Guatemala City political analyst and retired lieutenant colonel. "In international and national public opinion, a preconception prevails that the Army was involved. And since there are [members of the Army] on trial, they are presumed guilty."

Several other Latin American countries are moving toward reexamining their years under junta dictatorship, with an eye to prosecuting cases of deaths and disappearances.

Last month an Argentine court struck down two amnesty laws, opening the way for mid-level and junior military officers to be tried for crimes during the nation's 1976-83 "dirty war" against leftists and suspected leftists.

Efforts began two years ago toward bringing former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet to trial for abuses committed during his rule.

In Peru, police recently arrested two retired generals allegedly linked to a paramilitary group that killed 15 Lima residents suspected of being leftist rebels. The action came after an InterAmerican Human Rights court request that Peru repeal amnesty laws protecting military from human rights charges.

It has been a three-year battle to get the Gerardi case to court. A judge, a prosecutor, and a key prosecution witness fled the country after saying they had received death threats. Two grenades exploded at the house of one of the presiding judges the night before the trial opened.

The military defendants, being tried on murder charges, are the former head of military intelligence, retired Army Col. Disrael Lima; his Army captain son, Byron Lima; and former presidential guard Jose Obdulio Villanueva The Rev. Mario Orantes, a priest who shared the parish house with Gerardi, is also charged with murder, and Margarita Lopez, the bishop's cook, is accused as an accessory. All five maintain their innocence.

The prosecution and the Catholic Church say Gerardi's murder was a reprisal for the human rights report he released and was meant as a warning to the church not to meddle.

Bishop Mario Rios, who succeeded Gerardi as director of the church's human rights office, testified that soon after the murder, when Fr. Orantes was the only one accused, the president's brother called and offered to drop charges against Orantes if the church would stop investigating possible military and government involvement in the crime.

Defense lawyers say the case is based on flimsy testimony and not on hard evidence, and accuse prosecutors and their witnesses of trying to turn the trial into a political statement. "Anti-military sentiment is so high right now that I don't think any military guy can get a fair trial now in Guatemala or in any country in Latin America," says defense lawyer Roberto Echeverria. "We came from an era where military people committed a lot of excesses in the war - but it doesn't mean my clients don't have the right to a fair trial."

By all accounts, the crime scene was severely tampered with.

None of the five defendants' fingerprints were found at the scene, according to the testimony of a prosecution investigator.

Human rights activists and the Catholic Church hope the Gerardi case will pave the way for trials of wartime genocide cases. Most of the victims of the 36-year civil war were Indian peasants. A 1996 peace accord between the government and the guerrillas does not grant immunity for genocide or war crimes.

Prosecutors are interviewing witnesses for a possible genocide case against ex-military dictator Romeo Lucas Garcia and his high command that stems from 10 massacres during his 1978-1982 rule. The Guatemala City Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) says it will soon file a genocide case against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and his top officers for 13 massacres during his 1982-1983 tenure. Rios Montt is now president of congress.

The current trial is expected to last at least three months and include testimony from more than 100 witnesses.

Says Frank La Rue, the director of CALDH: "The fact that they are being prosecuted, that there is an oral and public trial where witnesses can speak out, and that information is coming out is, in itself, a very important precedent."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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