Bill seeks more data on rights abuses in Honduras House bill also requires U.S. documents on cases involving Guatemala

October 09, 1997|By Eric Lekus | Eric Lekus,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

WASHINGTON -- A California congressman introduced a bill yesterday to require a swifter, more comprehensive release of U.S. government documents related to human rights abuses in Honduras and Guatemala during the past several decades.

Rep. Tom Lantos said the bill would require federal agencies to follow a strict timetable for reviewing and declassifying documents on human rights abuses that occurred in the two countries during the past 50 years.

"Only full consideration and investigation of human rights abuses in this area can achieve the full accountability we need to rebuild a peaceful and civilized and reconciled civil society in those countries," the Democrat said at a news conference.

Appearing with him were two other Democratic representatives, Elizabeth Furse of Oregon and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, along with Jennifer Harbury, an American lawyer whose husband, a Guatemalan guerrilla, is missing and believed to have been executed by the Guatemalan military.

Rep. Constance A. Morella, the Montgomery County Republican who is co-sponsoring the legislation but did not appear at the news conference, released a statement saying that, "As a major participant in Central America during the 1980s, the United States has an obligation to provide as full an accounting as possible."

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat, is sponsoring the same bill in the Senate. Its supporters believe that classified documents could provide answers for families of those who were murdered, kidnapped or tortured by government security forces or paramilitary organizations in the two countries.

The Sun published a series of articles in 1995 reporting that CIA and State Department officials had detailed knowledge of the interrogation and torture of civilians by a Honduran military unit called Battalion 316, and that the CIA was instrumental in training and equipping that unit.

The articles reported that U.S. officials deliberately misled Congress and the public about the abuses in order to sustain public support for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.

Similar allegations have been made regarding U.S. support for the Guatemalan government during its 35-year-long civil war with leftist insurgents. Both Honduras and Guatemala have appointed commissions to investigate the reports of abuses. The Lantos bill would require government agencies to respond to inquiries from those countries' investigators.

Eric Rubin, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, declined to comment on the bill but defended the administration's release of documents:

"We have already declassified a range of documents on human rights issues in Central America, and as a matter of principle, we encourage further declassification," Rubin said.

Leo Valladares, a Honduran human rights investigator, has asked the U.S. government for any relevant files and information.

In May, President Clinton received a letter from Lantos and 50 members of Congress asking that the White House speed up the declassification process. In response, the president issued an executive order with a schedule for the release of documents.

The State Department has so far released 3,000 pages of documents. But other agencies have been slower to respond. In August, a month behind schedule, the CIA released more than 200 pages of heavily censored, previously classified material about its collaboration with Battalion 316.

The papers showed that the agency knew about the torture of civilians by the Honduran military. But Valladares called the papers meaningless because they were largely censored.

Pub Date: 10/09/97

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