Honduran army chief is ordered to testify Ex-president also gets summons in probe of '82 torture cases

November 29, 1995|By JAMES BOCK AND GARY COHN | JAMES BOCK AND GARY COHN,SUN STAFF Sun foreign correspondent Ginger Thompson contributed to this article.

A Honduran judge has ordered the country's armed forces chief, an ex-president and a former congressional leader to testify in the case of nine military officers accused of kidnapping and torturing six univer country's military, which has long held sway over the fledgling Central American democracy.

Judge Roy Medina confirmed yesterday that he sent the orders to Gen. Luis Alonso Discua, the armed forces chief; former President Roberto Suazo Cordoba, who was in office when the students disappeared, and Ef-rain Bu Giron, who was then president of the Honduran congress.

The summons demonstrated Judge Medina's determination to move the case forward despite the failure of police to capture three present and former military officers whose arrest he ordered in October.

"My job is to investigate these events," Judge Medina said. "If the suspects are not going to come and tell what they know about these crimes, there are others who may have information. I am not going to stop my investigation of this case."

There was no immediate indication whether General Discua and Mr. Suazo would comply. Judge Medina said Mr. Bu has agreed to testify.

None of the men would be required to make a public court appearance, the judge said. General Discua and Mr. Bu would be deposed by the judge in their offices in Tegucigalpa, the capital. Mr. Suazo would be interviewed at home in La Paz, about 60 miles away.

Human rights activists hailed the judge's move.

"I think these actions are very important," said Berta Oliva, director of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared. "It is vital that the armed forces respect judicial power. We must accustom people to live under the law."

Ms. Oliva said 16 members of her committee -- all but two of whom are relatives of Hondurans who disappeared during a wave of repression in the early 1980s -- got the news during a meeting and reacted with jubilation.

"This is something we had been wanting," she said. "The Honduran people need justice to be done."

Judge Medina has faced death threats since July, when he summoned 10 active and retired military officers to answer questions about 1980s human rights abuses. One of the 10, Juan Ramon Pena Paz, was dropped from the case earlier this week.

Specifically, the case involves the kidnapping and torture of six university students in 1982. Milton Jimenez, one of the kidnapped students, was the leader of a leftist student group that held numerous marches and demonstrations against everything from increases in tuition to the presence of U.S. troops in Honduras.

Mr. Jimenez and the five students kidnapped with him in 1982 were released alive from the clandestine jails of Battalion 316, a secret Honduran army unit trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The battalion carried out a covert campaign against suspected leftists, including at least 184 people whom the battalion is presumed to have executed and buried clandestinely.

None of the accused military officers, whose lawyer contends they are immune from prosecution under a 1991 amnesty law, has appeared.

Judge Medina issued arrest warrants last month for three of the suspects, including Col. Alexander Hernandez, who is suspected of being a former leader of Battalion 316. None has been captured.

Earlier this month, General Discua relieved Colonel Hernandez of his duties as inspector general of the national police force and placed him on paid leave. Human rights activists charged that the armed forces chief changed the colonel's status to protect him.

Mr. Suazo, who served from 1982 to 1986, was the first civilian president of Honduras in a decade. But he told Honduran reporters this year that he was simply a "decorative figure" used to give the illusion of civilian control. The real power, he said, belonged to the military.

Mr. Suazo said he was never involved in the disappearances of Honduran citizens. He said he did not protest human rights abuses for fear the military would launch a coup against him, he told the reporters.

Judge Medina's willingness to confront the military has emboldened other Hondurans to dig into the past.

Argentine forensic anthropologists, working with the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, last week unearthed the remains of four people along the Pan-American Highway. They were presumed to have been killed by security forces in the 1980s.

"We did not want to act before because circumstances were not favorable. The judiciary acted in favor of the military," said Dr. Ramon Custodio, who heads the human rights committee.

The Honduran investigation into the human rights abuses of the 1980s intensified this summer after a four-part series in The Sun reported that the CIA and State Department collaborated with Battalion 316.

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