Republicans kill bill to open files on rights abuses U.S. victims of violence in Honduras, Guatemala have sought documents

September 03, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans, aligned with U.S. intelligence agencies, beat back efforts yesterday to force disclosure of information held by U.S. agencies on cases of kidnapping, torture and murder by U.S.-backed security forces in Honduras and Guatemala during the Cold War.

Voting along party lines, the Senate killed legislation that would have given the administration four months to declassify documents sought for years by human rights investigators in Honduras and Guatemala and by Americans who were victims of abuses there.

The White House, which has repeatedly pledged to find and release documents shedding light on Central America's dark past, stood on the sidelines. The Central Intelligence Agency had come out strongly against similar legislation pending in the House.

Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, a Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, quoted the director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, as calling the bill "woefully inadequate" in protecting American national security.

Ramon Custodio, president of the independent Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, saw it differently.

"You have the truth and your country hides it. That leads to impunity [for human rights violators] in Honduras," he said last night in a telephone interview.

"The system of your country has two standards. One where people respect the law and another where people don't have even the smallest respect for the law."

Kate Doyle, a foreign policy analyst at the National Security Archive, a library of declassified documents, said the administration has revealed less about Honduras than about Guatemala.

This is because there has been less public pressure for $l documents on Honduras and also because the material is more sensitive, she said: "The involvement of the United States in Honduras was more profound, more complicitous. The United States was right down in there, up to its eyebrows with the Honduran military."

Yesterday's 50-43 vote came on an amendment to a foreign aid appropriation bill. Similar legislation is pending in the House. Supporters held out little hope of its passing both houses this year, although they were cheered that the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, voted for it.

The only Republican supporter was Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords.

"We'd have to find some kind of procedural miracle to maneuver this through," said Susan Peacock, a research fellow at the National Security Archive, who has worked with declassified documents involving Honduras. "I think the game is pretty much over in the Congress."

The vote followed years of attempts by the Hondurans to get at the truth about more than 180 people who disappeared in that country in the 1980s when a CIA-trained unit known as Battalion 316 was kidnapping, torturing and murdering suspected leftists.

During that period, the country was used by the United States as a staging ground for an American-backed effort to topple the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

The bill killed yesterday would also have assisted efforts by the Clarification Commission in Guatemala to compile a historical record of three decades of human rights abuses.

Supporters of the legislation, led by Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Democrat, said it would help Latin American countries better understand their pasts and cement democratic institutions. Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat, co-sponsored the Dodd bill. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, also a Democrat, supported it.

"The conflicts that plagued these countries cost the lives of thousands of people," Dodd said. Disclosure of still-secret documents would help bring the perpetrators of the crimes to justice, he said.

Opponents, including Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama, said the bill would give

foreign organizations the right to "compel disclosure" of sensitive information and, if unsatisfied, take defense and foreign-policy organizations to court.

But Dodd and other supporters of the bill said it would also provide long-sought answers to Americans who had suffered as a result of the conflicts in Central America.

Three of the most prominent American cases involve Jennifer Harbury, a Baltimore-born widow of a guerrilla who was killed in Guatemala; a Catholic nun, Dianna Ortiz, who was raped and tortured in Guatemala in 1989; and human rights worker Meredith Larson, who suffered stab wounds in Guatemala the same year.

Dodd highlighted the Ortiz case, saying the nun's life had "never been the same" since she was brutally attacked while working in rural Guatemala.

As she sought to pressure the government to disclose what it knew about her case, Dodd said, she has been treated by some officials "as a perpetrator of some crime or involved in nefarious behavior." But the 111 cigarette burns on her back testify to the contrary, Dodd said.

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