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Guatemala Panel Convicts 4 in 1998 Killing of Bishop

Trial: Three soldiers, priest receive prison terms. Human rights groups hail verdict.

June 09, 2001|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUATEMALA CITY — Three soldiers and a priest were found guilty Friday of the 1998 murder of Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, in a stunning victory for the rule of law in this country still struggling to exorcise the demons of its long and bloody civil war.

The Catholic Church, legal observers and diplomats hailed the outcome of the closely watched trial as proof of the success of international efforts to curtail military power and rebuild democracy here since the signing of peace accords five years ago.

In the most important test to date for the Guatemalan justice system, human rights groups claimed victory.

"This sentence shows us that all the years of fighting haven't been in vain," human rights activist Helen Mack said as she wiped away tears after the verdict.

Retired Col. Disrael Lima Estrada, 60, a former military intelligence chief; his son, Capt. Byron Lima Oliva, 31; and Sgt. Jose Obdulio Villanueva, 36--the latter two former members of a controversial presidential security unit--were found guilty of bludgeoning Gerardi to death April 26, 1998. Two days before, the bishop had released a report blaming the military for the vast majority of the 200,000 deaths in the country's 35-year civil war.

Each of the convicted soldiers was sentenced to 30 years in prison without parole. Their lawyers said they would appeal.

Father Mario Orantes, 38, an assistant who lived with the 75-year-old Gerardi at a Guatemala City seminary, received a sentence of 20 years in prison without parole for covering up the crime. Gerardi's cook, Margarita Lopez, was set free after a tribunal determined that her fellow defendants had forced her to participate in the cover-up.

The three justices who heard the case also ordered an investigation to determine whether more high-ranking officers might have played a role in the crime. They stopped short, however, of forcing an investigation of former President Alvaro Arzu, as requested by the Catholic Church.

The tribunal also rejected nearly every defense offered by the soldiers. That rejection was significant because army members have long escaped legal prosecution in Guatemala, owing to the military's power during the country's long fight against leftist guerrillas.

The most striking aspect of the verdict may have been the judges' acceptance of the prosecution's contention that the crime was political and was designed to prevent further inquiry into the military's involvement in human rights crimes. The possible extent of that involvement was hinted at earlier this week, when a group of 11 indigenous communities filed a genocide lawsuit against the current president of the Congress, Efrain Rios Montt, a former dictator and military general.

"We are strengthening the system of justice in Guatemala," said Miguel Albizures, head of the Alliance Against Impunity, a human rights group. "We are fighting against impunity that the military has had since the 1980s."

There were still warning signs, however, that work remains to improve Guatemala's justice system.

Of greatest concern was the fact that, by most estimates, the evidence against the accused was weak. Police officials badly mishandled collection of evidence. Of 17 DNA samples taken from blood at the murder scene, none was a certain match with the accused.

And the chief witness, who placed the defendants at the scene, embellished his account numerous times, most recently by remembering in midtrial that he was actually recruited by the Limas to help in the crime.

Even some human rights activists privately acknowledged that the case would not have been brought to trial in the United States for lack of evidence.

"They have not received a fair trial," Roberto Echeverria, the attorney for the Limas, said in an interview shortly before the trial's end.

The death of Gerardi, a beloved figure, shook the country. Almost immediately, human rights groups labeled the killing a political attack orchestrated by the country's military, whose power had gradually slipped after the signing of peace accords in 1996.

The investigation and trial that followed became Guatemala's own version of the O. J. Simpson case, complete with police corruption, mishandled blood evidence, sensational headlines and a dog that played a role in the inquiry.

The hunt for the killers continued for more than two years with little success. Those investigating were frequently threatened. At least two judges and several witnesses fled the country. Several other potential witnesses turned up dead under mysterious circumstances.

The tortured process occasionally degenerated into absurdity. At one point, an aging dog belonging to Orantes was detained. The animal's veterinarian was reportedly offered a bribe to inject drugs into the dog to make the canine appear more vicious. Baloo, a German shepherd, was later exonerated of complicity in the murder, though he died in custody.

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