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
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
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
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
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.