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Nobel Laureate's Actions Trigger Treason Charges

Lawyer assails activist's request that a Spanish court hear cases of Guatemala's alleged abuses. But Rigoberta Menchu denies efforts undermine national sovereignty.

May 05, 2000|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUATEMALA CITY — Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu has long been a prophet without honor in her own land.

One anthropologist spent a decade documenting discrepancies in her 1983 book, "I, Rigoberta Menchu." She has angered former allies--who accused her of collaborating with a right-wing administration--by helping the government convict the soldiers who massacred about a dozen people in 1995 in the village of Xaman. And she has infuriated the government by withdrawing from the case when it became clear that no high-ranking officers would be held accountable.

Now Menchu, a short, stout woman who proudly wears the colorful clothes of her Maya Indian hometown and traditional braids crisscrossed atop her head, faces more than controversy. She has been accused of treason, a crime that carries a 10- to 20-year prison term.

The allegation, brought in a complaint by a private attorney that prosecutors are legally obliged to pursue, stems from Menchu's request that a Spanish court hear cases of human rights violations that allegedly occurred during this nation's 35-year guerrilla war, which ended in 1996. The cases have been documented by independent investigators but have not been brought to trial in Guatemala.

She named eight defendants. The most prominent is Efrain Rios Montt, a former military dictator who is now the president of the Guatemalan legislature and a close ally of President Alfonso Portillo.

Rios Montt canceled a trip to France last month after a Spanish court agreed to consider Menchu's request. The court is looking into the killings of four Spanish priests as well as a 1980 massacre at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City, in which 39 protesters, including Menchu's father, were burned alive and a survivor tortured to death, according to court documents.

The deaths of Menchu's mother and two brothers, who were killed by security forces in the 1980s, according to court documents, also will be reviewed.

The case comes on the heels of the 1998 arrest in Britain of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for extradition to Spain on similar charges. Although he was released in March because of poor health, his arrest set a precedent for cases such as the one brought by Menchu.

Lawyer Julio Cintron Galvez was infuriated by the idea that three former Guatemalan presidents, one a friend, should be subjected to Spanish justice. "To my way of thinking, the administration of justice is a symbol of a country's sovereignty," he said. "What would the United States do if an English court presumed to administer justice there?"

He submitted to the attorney general a nine-page complaint accusing Menchu of treason "for a series of actions that have directly threatened the integrity of the Guatemalan nation." By taking her case to a Spanish court, he charged, she has virtually made Guatemala a Spanish colony again, undermining national sovereignty.

"She had to go to the Spanish courts because she could not get justice in Guatemala," said Karen Fischer, a Guatemalan and founder of the Alliance Against Impunity, a human rights group. "To accuse her of treason is ridiculous."

In her written response last month to Cintron Galvez's accusations, Menchu stated, "This request in no way implies any sort of submission of the state or in any way undermines sovereignty or affects national unity." Cintron Galvez's complaint, she added, "reflects nearly a Stalinist concept of the infallibility of the state."

Menchu, who refused repeated requests for an interview, asked in her reply to the charges that the case be shelved.

Cintron Galvez said he is worried that, under international pressure, the attorney general will do just that.

"It is time to take action against the neo-left," he said. "This is an ideological struggle of the Communists against the anti-Communists--an attempt to manipulate public opinion in Guatemala against the armed forces."

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