February 17, 1999
Priest in Guatemalan bishop's murder case freed

                  GUATEMALA CITY (CNN) -- A Guatemalan judge on Wednesday
                  ordered the release, for lack of evidence, of a Roman Catholic priest who
                  was the sole suspect in the 1998 murder of a prominent bishop and human
                  rights activist.

                  Judge Henry Monroy said prosecutors failed to present enough evidence to
                  put the Rev. Mario Orantes on trial in the bludgeoning death last April of
                  Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi. Orantes became the third suspect to be detained
                  and then released in the convoluted case.

                  "The judge has demonstrated that justice exists in Guatemala," a
                  tired-looking Orantes told a throng of reporters from his hospital bed, where
                  he was recovering from chronic migraine and ulcer ailments.

                  "We have faith in God that the investigations under way in all of this will lead,
                  little by little, to greater clarity so that those really guilty of the killing are
                  revealed," Orantes, 39, said as his teary-eyed mother looked on.

                  Killing followed critical rights report

                  Gerardi, 75, was found bludgeoned to death in the garage of his rectory two
                  days after he presented a landmark report blaming Guatemala's army for
                  most of the atrocities committed during the country's civil war. His brutal
                  murder stunned Guatemala at a time when it was struggling to leave behind
                  decades of political violence.

                   Prosecutors quickly discarded politics as a motive for the assassination but
                   were unable to develop a motive that held up, at various times describing
                   the murder as a burglary gone wrong and a crime of passion.

                   At one time, investigators implicated Orantes' dog in an attempt to shore
                   up their case, bringing in international forensics experts in an unsuccessful
                   bid to show it had attacked the bishop.

                  Human rights groups and Roman Catholic Church officials accused
                  Guatemala's security forces of being behind the killing in revenge for
                  Gerardi's human rights efforts. Military-linked death squads acted with
                  impunity during much of Guatemala's 36-year civil war.

                  World leaders, including Pope John Paul II and U.N. Secretary-General
                  Kofi Annan, also condemned the attack.

                  Church official slams prosecutors

                  A church spokesman reacted with bitterness rather than relief at
                  Wednesday's verdict, slamming prosecutors for having implicated the church
                  in the killing.

                  "There is a very clear campaign here to discredit the Catholic Church and
                  Monsignor Gerardi's memory," Ronalth Ochaeta, director of the
                  Archbishopric's Human Rights Office, said.

                  Ochaeta last year had publicly accused a former member of the Presidential
                  Guard and another military officer of involvement in the murder.

                  Analysts said Gerardi's case has become a major test of whether the
                  government can prosecute political crimes in the wake of the 1996 peace
                  accords signed by the government and leftist rebels.

                  Monroy said Orantes, who discovered the bishop's body in the parish house
                  where they lived and worked, was still formally accused in Gerardi's killing
                  even though he has temporarily closed the case.

                  Public prosecutor Celvin Galindo on Wednesday vowed he would continue
                  with the investigation, looking into different hypotheses behind the murder.

                  An unemployed man, Carlos Enrique Vielman, 24, was arrested April 30,
                  but was freed soon after for lack of evidence. Margarita Lopez, the cook at
                  Orantes' San Sebastian Parish, was also arrested in the case, but was
                  released shortly after because of a lack of evidence.

                                    Reuters contributed to this report.