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Rape, Robbery Case Shows Two Sides of Justice System

World Perspective | LATIN AMERICA

April 24, 1998|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ESQUINTLA, Guatemala — Inside the smudged, peeling walls of a nondescript courthouse here in rural Guatemala, an exercise in international justice is underway.

For three days this month, a U.S. group including college students who were raped and robbed in a nearby sugar-cane field presented evidence on the attack. Witnesses included four of the five rape victims, their three faculty chaperons from St. Mary's College in Maryland and half a dozen other students who were robbed during a study tour in January.

Now a Guatemalan judge will decide whether their testimony and identification, combined with other evidence, are persuasive enough to order three suspects to stand trial for the crime.

So far, the process has received lavish praise and stinging criticism.

"All of us are very proud of these courageous students in their decision to return," said Carmen Shepard, Maryland's deputy attorney general, who accompanied the group to provide legal expertise.

Jay Howell, a victims' rights attorney based in Jacksonville, Fla., said, "In many cases it is extremely important to the [rape] victim to be present and able to participate."

The hearings have also helped soften the negative glare that had been cast on Guatemala in the wake of the attack.

"We are extremely grateful for all the support and assistance we've been given from officials here in Guatemala," Shepard said.

Such recognition is important to the Guatemalan government, which has worried that concerns about public safety stemming from the highly publicized daylight rapes and robbery would deter visits by foreigners.

Guatemala depends on tourism for $325 million a year in foreign exchange, the nation's second-biggest source of such income after coffee.

Altogether, the exercise has been an exemplary demonstration of Guatemalan justice--exemplary, but far from typical, critics charge.

"There has been a tremendous discontent with the special treatment that the students have received, which has no relation whatsoever with the way Guatemalan rape victims are treated," said Oscar Recinos, founder of the country's Neighborhood Watch, an anti-crime organization.

Guatemalans are pleased that the students decided to assist in the prosecution, he said. But the natives are also angry that Guatemalan victims do not get the same treatment.

Both Atty. Gen. Hugo Perez Aguilera and Angel Conte, the national police chief, met with the students, as did U.S. Ambassador Donald J. Planty. The college hired a top attorney, Fernando Linares, as its victims' rights lawyer.

The students were shuttled between their Guatemala City hotel and the courthouse by U.S. Embassy guards. To protect their privacy, the students were covered in sheets and allowed to use a private courthouse entrance.

Their two days of depositions were taken in a judge's chambers. If the judge decides that a trial is warranted, the depositions will substitute for the students' testimony in court. They will never have to confront the suspects.

For the identification of suspects, one-way glass was installed in a window in the judge's chambers, which overlooks a hallway. Fifteen men--including the three suspects--stood shirtless in a lineup in the hallway.

Two positive identifications were made, said an investigation source.

Neighborhood Watch has been advocating for more than a year that one-way glass be used in police lineups, Recinos said. Now, police tear apart a cardboard box and punch out an eye-sized hole for the victim to look through, he said.

"At the moment of identification, [victims] are left alone with no [lawyer or relative] to protect them," he said. If a trial is set, Guatemalan victims must testify. "Guatemalan victims deserve the same treatment" as the U.S. students, Recinos said.

Instead, the protection afforded the U.S. students graphically showed the disparity between special cases like theirs and the attention afforded ordinary citizens.

On the day of the lineups, Guatemalan crime victims filled the benches around the courthouse patio. They included a woman in a faded dress with a cut across her cheek that was beginning to bruise. "They told me to wait," she said, pressing a dirty cloth to her face to stop the bleeding.

"We have declared a court holiday until after the identifications," the presiding judge explained. "People have to understand."

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