Honduran president backs amnesty It is 'sensible' to forget '80s abuses, Reina says

many denounce stand

December 07, 1995|By Ginger Thompson and Gary Cohn | Ginger Thompson and Gary Cohn,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

Honduran President Carlos Roberto Reina, who ran for office as a champion of human rights, said yesterday that he favors amnesty for military officers suspected of kidnapping, torturing and killing Honduran citizens during the 1980s.

Interviewed by reporters after opening a water treatment system in a slum outside the capital, Tegucigalpa, Mr. Reina was asked yesterday whether he believed a 1991 amnesty for political crimes committed during the 1980s covers military officials responsible for abuses.

Mr. Reina responded: "I have heard all the opinions. One of the most sensible says that [the amnesty] includes everything from that time, a forgetting of the events. That is to say that it includes civilians and military officials. And I believe that is correct."

The president's statement was immediately denounced by Honduran human rights advocates, including members of his own administration who have been working to prosecute military men suspected of abuses in the 1980s, when Honduras was a staging ground for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.

Leo Valladares, the government's commissioner for human rights, called Mr. Reina's position "a setback for the fight for human rights."

"It appears that he is inclined to stop the investigations into the truth about the violence of the 1980s and that he will allow the murderers to enjoy impunity," he said in a telephone interview. "It would have been better for him to stay silent on the issue because his statement imposes on the independence of the courts."

Mr. Valladares said he feared Mr. Reina's position would diminish the Clinton administration's incentive to turn over U.S. government documents covering the period, as it has promised to do to help the Honduran investigation.

"Why should the U.S. government rush to declassify documents when the president of Honduras is indicating that he wants all the violence to be forgotten?" Mr. Valladares said. "The U.S. government would like to keep the documents secret because they want to keep their involvement in the abuses secret."

So far, the Honduran attorney general's office has filed charges against 15 former and present members of the military who allegedly kidnapped and tortured suspected leftists during the 1980s. The officers are believed to have been members of a CIA-trained military unit known as Battalion 316.

Some 184 people are still missing and presumed dead. They are known as "los desaparecidos," Spanish for "the disappeared."

Deputy Attorney General Rene Velasquez said yesterday that his office "regrets" President Reina's statement. Prosecutors believe that military officials are not covered by the 1991 amnesty because the abuses are not defined as political crimes, but as abuses of power.

Mr. Velasquez said his office will continue to pursue cases against military officers.

"This is not a matter that will be decided by the president," Mr. Velasquez said. "This will be decided in the courts. And it is our belief that the courts will study the amnesty and they will see that it does not cover the military."

Human rights advocates denounced Mr. Reina's position on amnesty for the military.

"This is the president's way of sending orders to the courts," said Berta Oliva, director of the Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH). "What judge in this country is going to want to go against the will of the president?"

Ms. Oliva recalled that when Mr. Reina was running for office, he promised that his presidency would be a "Golden Age" for the defense of human rights, in which those guilty of abuses would be prosecuted and punished.

"We do not know this man whom we elected president," said Ms. Oliva. "He promised to be the defender of truth and human rights. But all that he defends are criminals and impunity."

The question of whether the amnesty covers the military is being considered by Judge Roy Medina, who is overseeing a case in which nine current and retired military officers have been charged with kidnapping and torturing six university students in 1982.

Judge Medina has said that he will investigate the charges against the officers, determine whether they are guilty and then decide whether they are covered by the amnesty.

The defense attorney for the officers insists, however, that the trial is illegal because his clients are covered by the amnesty. The attorney, Carlos Lopez Osorio, has filed a motion before the Court of Appeals to demand that Judge Medina grant his clients immediate amnesty and stop the investigation into the charges against them.

Human rights advocates fear amnesty would cripple efforts to investigate what occurred during the 1980s.

"The relatives of those who were killed should be able to learn the truth about what happened," said Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde, a leader of the Christian Democratic Party. "The bodies of all those who disappeared must be found and returned to their families.

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