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Guatemala Activists Oppose Military Courts Bill

Legislation would ban criminal prosecution of soldiers and officers in civilian venues. Critics say it would create 'a climate of impunity.'

October 02, 2005|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

GUATEMALA CITY — Proposed legislation putting military personnel beyond the reach of civilian courts has drawn strong opposition from Guatemalan human rights activists haunted by the excesses of previous military rule.

Backed by the Guatemalan Republican Front and other rightist parties, as well as the country's powerful lobby of active and retired army generals, the bill would modify Guatemala's 19th century code of military conduct and transfer criminal prosecutions of soldiers and officers to military courts.

Human rights activists and judicial experts here argue that the law could halt a number of prosecutions against military officers on corruption charges.

"This law creates a climate of impunity," said Iduvina Hernandez of Security in Democracy, a military watchdog group. "It's a law written in a spirit of cowardice that favors the corrupt."

Hernandez and other activists here say the law would halt the prosecutions of officers charged in a $100-million embezzlement case, and block corruption and human rights charges against former military ruler Efrain Rios Montt, who presided over an especially bloody chapter of Guatemalan history.

Backers of the law say it is merely an attempt to bring an outdated military justice system into the modern era.

"The existing code was written 120 years ago and is out of date," said Juan Santacruz, a congressional deputy with the Guatemalan Republican Front. "People have been trying to create confusion about the spirit of the reform."

Santacruz contends the legislation would not affect current prosecutions of military officials on corruption charges. Human rights activists disagree, and see the bill as a first step of a wider rollback of civilian control over the military.

Opponents of the bill say it violates a key provision of the 1996 treaty between the government and leftist rebels that ended the country's long civil war. It stipulates that "ordinary crimes and misdemeanors committed by military personnel will be tried in ordinary courts."

Otto Perez Molina, a retired general and congressional deputy representing the Patriot Party, acknowledged that the measure contradicts the treaty. But he said the reforms had been discussed between the military and the rebels during their negotiations a decade ago.

"We've been talking about this since then," Perez Molina said. "We want this to be decided in a public debate.... What we want is that everyone be equal before the law."

Human rights activist Helen Mack says the legislation would further weaken a judicial system that has proved incapable of prosecuting those charged with human rights violations committed during decades of military rule.

"The military already has so much influence over the judicial system that they have a de facto amnesty from human rights prosecutions," said Mack, whose sister Myrna was killed by a military death squad in 1990.

Myrna Mack was an anthropologist who was investigating the effect of the Guatemalan military's "scorched earth" policy on the country's Mayan Indians.

Her killing is one of the few crimes attributed to the military that has been successfully prosecuted. An army colonel was convicted in the killing but he was freed pending appeal and fled the country.

If the bill is passed, Mack said, it would only demonstrate "the continuing weakness and the decay of the Guatemalan justice system."

Perez Molina said opposition could lead the bill's backers to postpone debate on it until next year.

Times researcher Alex Renderos in San Salvador contributed to this report.

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