In charging top military officers in Honduras for “abuse of power” in the expulsion of Manuel Zelaya June 28, prosecutors in the Central American nation are pushing forward with the first legal action against the armed forces since Mr. Zelaya’s ouster.
But it remains far from certain that the charges – which the Supreme Court still must respond to and comes as lawmakers are set to discuss amnesty for the events of June 28 – will make little difference in the outcome of the region’s worst political crisis in decades.
“It is my sense that this is an exercise in window dressing,” says Kevin Casas-Zamora, the former vice president of Costa Rica and now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It is not in the nature of the Honduran judiciary to try military commanders.”
Top military officers, including chief of staff Gen. Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, were charged with “abuse of power” by the Honduran attorney general Wednesday for the expulsion of Zelaya, who was arrested on the morning of June 28 and sent in a military plane to Costa Rica.
The Supreme Court has three days to agree to the charges and start a case. "We will submit ourselves to Honduran justice if necessary because we are men of the law," Gen. Vasquez was reported as saying in local Honduran media.
But many have dismissed the charges, including Zelaya, as a ploy. "Today, using a new stratagem, the attorney general who has equal or more responsibility as the soldiers, is presenting accusations... to achieve impunity for the soldiers by accusing them of minor crimes," Zelaya, who remains in the Brazilian embassy after sneaking back into Honduras in September, said in a statement, according to the AFP.
The interim government of Honduras, led by Roberto Micheletti, has long maintained that Zelaya’s ouster was not a coup, as condemned by the rest of the world, but a constitutional transfer of power.
Zelaya was arrested, with the backing of the Supreme Court and even members of his own party, for attempting to move forward with a vote to consider constitutional change. His critics said he was attempting to scrap term limits for presidents, which under the current constitution can only carry out a single term. Zelaya has denied that charge.
The attorney general now says that, while Zelaya was rightfully removed from office, the military overstepped Supreme Court orders in exiling Zelaya to Costa Rica. Under the Honduran constitution, civilians cannot be thrown out of the country.
The motive to bring charges now may be one of “buck-passing,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a consultant group based in New York, “so that someone can say there was an overstep.”
Even though the interim government has brushed off international condemnation, holding presidential elections in November without restoring Zelaya first to power as was demanded by most nations, charges brought against Honduran generals could clear some political space for the new administration of Porfirio Lobo, set to take office on Jan. 27.
The decision to charge the military officers now might reflect international pressure from Washington. It comes as Craig Kelly, diplomat for the US State Department, returned to Honduras this week to foster national reconciliation.
Amnesty for all?
But it would be a departure from earlier international demands, says Mr. Casas-Zamora, and could amount to little action. When the international community, most notably Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, was trying to bring the two sides to a negotiated settlement, they floated amnesty for all parties involved.
Both Mr. Micheletti and Zelaya rejected amnesty then, but lawmakers are set to take up the issue again in coming days. Amnesty would allow Zelaya to leave the Brazilian embassy, which he cannot do now without risking arrest, Honduran officials say.
Even if the Supreme Court decides to take on the case against military officers, any amnesty agreement would also include protection for the military. “No one knows what the contours of the amnesty will be. But it is only to be expected that whatever amnesty deal is agreed upon, it will certainly include the military,” says Casas-Zamora. “We know from the history of democratic transition in Latin America that the one issue the military [demands] is securing impunity for whatever abuses they may have committed.