Guatemala must protect witnesses to ensure justice

April 25, 2001|By Barbara Bocek

FORKS, Wash. -- Guatemala's fragile justice system is on trial in a courtroom surrounded by armed security troops and growing political violence.

The crime is the 1998 killing of Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi, who released documents pinpointing the deaths of 150,000 people and the disappearance of another 50,000 that largely were attributed to the military. The defendants include three military officers, one a former presidential aide. The plaintiff is the Guatemalan archbishop's Human Rights Office.

Given three years of threats and obstruction, heroic measures safeguarding judges and witnesses will be necessary to ensure justice is done.

Amnesty International has called on the United States, which has underwritten much of Guatemala's political history, to focus its $40 million aid package for the Central American country's judicial reforms on the creation of a genuine witness protection program that guarantees the safety of all judicial personnel.

Gerardi was an outspoken advocate for human rights and an opponent of the military regimes in power during Guatemala's civil war. Two days after releasing a landmark report that accused the army of tens of thousands of human rights atrocities, Gerardi was beaten to death.

Before the crime scene was secured, army officers arrived, photographing the body and disturbing the rest of the site. Human rights observers denounced the killing as a political one. But investigators developed a series of absurd and unsubstantiated alternative theories to explain away the crime.

First, the killing was dismissed as simple homicide. Police arrested a disabled homeless man, but he proved physically incapable of the force required to commit the brutal attack.

Second, the killing was decried as a crime of passion in which the priest sharing Gerardi's residence ordered a pet dog to attack him.

A third motive implicated the church in organized crime, specifically, trafficking in religious relics. The official who concocted this theory was a relative of the officers who were charged with extra-judicial execution in connection with the killing. The charge is more serious than murder and generally is reserved for active-duty members of the armed forces.

Amnesty International believes that investigative resources were deliberately squandered by the state in a gross miscarriage of justice and welcomed the news that the second prosecutor would investigate political motives.

But shortly thereafter, the first judge dropped the case. A second judge fled the country. The second prosecutor reported death threats and fled into exile after five army officers were caught staking out his house.

The investigation went off-line until a new president took office in January 2000. Defense attorneys redoubled their efforts to delay it. A series of patently frivolous motions paralyzed the case for nearly another year.

Human rights violators operate with near-total impunity in Guatemala. But by any standards, the obstruction of justice has reached outrageous proportions in the Gerardi case. Dozens of people have reported serious intimidation, and another dozen have fled the country. Three witnesses who stayed paid with their lives, as did six indigents who were sleeping outdoors near Gerardi's home the night of the killing.

A Catholic bishop's testimony on March 30 implicated the previous administration of President Alvaro Arzu and its military cohorts in conspiracy after the fact.

The stakes in this case are increasingly high. Guatemala's precarious democracy is gravely threatened and hanging in the balance until the killing is resolved.

Gerardi was an internationally renowned human rights leader and a high-ranking religious figure as well. Courageous officers of the court are facing constant threats of death as they work to deliver justice in this emblematic case.

The United States should request that Guatemala implement fully its Decree Law 70-96, providing for the protection of witnesses and justice administrators, especially in cases of human rights. Otherwise there is little hope of justice for Gerardi, or for the 200,000 victims reported by him in the document for which he gave his life.

Barbara Bocek has been working with Amnesty International USA since 1997. She served four years in Guatemala on rural development and human rights issues.

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