Honduras charges soldiers

July 26, 1995|By Ginger Thompson and Gary Cohn | Ginger Thompson and Gary Cohn,Sun Staff Correspondents

The Honduran government filed criminal charges yesterday against 11 current and former military officers for kidnapping and torturing student activists during the 1980s.

One of the men indicted yesterday was Col. Alexander Hernandez, former commander of Battalion 316, a secret intelligence unit trained and equipped by the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s, when Honduras was the staging ground for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.

Yesterday's indictments came six weeks after the activities of Battalion 316 and the first-hand accounts of its members and victims were described in articles by The Sun.

Colonel Hernandez was the first commander of Battalion 316. He currently is a ranking officer in the Honduran police force.

In an interview with The Sun last year, Colonel Hernandez was confronted with allegations that he ordered executions and responded: "There is no proof against me."

But Sonia Marlina de Flores, the assistant attorney general for human rights, said yesterday: "He was the intellectual author of the kidnappings. He gave the orders."

Yesterday's charges represented the first formal action brought against Colonel Hernandez and other military officers alleged to have been the perpetrators of well-known abuses during the 1980s.

Ms. Flores said that her office has charged the officials with illegal detention and attempted murder.

During the 1980s, known in Honduras as the "Dark Decade," the Honduran military kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundreds of people accused of subversion in an effort to wipe out Communist groups.

At least 184 people are still missing and believed to have been victims of Battalion 316. The missing are known in Honduras as "desaparecidos."

Ms. Flores, the Honduran government's lead investigator into the disappearances of the 1980s, called yesterday's charges "a great advance in the history of Honduras.

"We are finally breaking ground," she said.

In addition to Colonel Hernandez, retired Gen. Amilcar Zelaya, former head of the Honduran Police Force, also was charged. "His house was used as a secret jail. That is where the students were tortured," Ms. Flores said.

The men are all charged in the kidnapping and torture of six students arrested at their home by some 20 armed men in civilian clothes on April 27, 1982. Among those students were Milton Jimenez, then a 20-year-old law student; Suyapa Rivera; ZTC and her sister, Gilda.

The attorney general's office began investigating the kidnapping these students about six months ago. Prosecutor Flores said that more than 25 people testified about the kidnapping, including the six victims, their relatives and people who lived near the house where the students were illegally detained.

Convincing people to speak about the crime was the most difficult part of the investigation, Ms. Flores said.

"There is not a real atmosphere of security here," she said. "Even some of the victims asked us not to present this case first. They wanted us to wait until other cases were presented. They did not want their case to be the one to make a mark in history."

For the security of witnesses, Ms. Flores said that the evidence presented to the court is sealed.

The other military officials charged include: Col. Juan Lopez Grijalba, who served as head of Honduran military intelligence; Col. Julio Cesar Funez, who served as head of investigations in the National Department of Investigations (DNI); Col. Manuel de Jesus Trejo, also a former member of DNI; and Lt. Col. Juan Blas Salazar, the former director of DNI, who is currently in jail on drug charges.

Charges also were presented against Col. Juan Evangelista Lopez, Col. Juan Ramon Pena Paz, Col. Roberto Arnaldo Erazo, Col. Jorge Alberto Padilla and Capt. Billy Joya.

Judge Roy Medina, at the First Criminal Court of Letters, will take several days to review the attorney general's evidence and determine whether there is sufficient proof to arrest the accused and hold them for trial. The men face penalties that range from three to 10 years.

"But even if they only serve one month in jail, it is not the time that is important. What is important is that they be found guilty for these crimes and that they be punished," Ms. Flores said.

"The times of impunity have ended."

Ms. Flores added that her office is prepared to file charges against more military officials in the cases of others who were kidnapped, tortured and killed. But they are awaiting the judge's decision on this first case.

Honduran human rights officials are also nervously awaiting Judge Medina's decision.

"If the judge refuses to arrest these men, then all the cases of the disappeared are doomed," said Bertha Oliva, director of the Committee for the Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras. "No one will ever be punished for these crimes if this case fails."

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