By GLENN GARVIN and LAURA WIDES
Herald Staff Writers
GUATEMALA CITY -- A judge Wednesday freed a priest who had been held
for seven months as a suspect in the murder of a Roman Catholic bishop, but
allowed prosecutors to continue their investigation of the priest.
Both the Rev. Mario Orantes, the priest who has been held without bail
arrest last July, and prosecutors said they were happy with the judge's decision.
The judge could have ordered Orantes to trial or dismissed the case against him.
The judge's decision was the latest twist in the investigation of the killing
Juan Gerardi, 75, who was found beaten to death April 26 in the garage of a
church residence he shared with Orantes.
Gerardi, a passionate human rights advocate, was killed just 48 hours after
delivering a report sharply critical of the conduct of Guatemala's army during the
country's 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.
Catholic Church and human rights officials in Guatemala have argued strongly
the killing was a political assassination in retaliation for the report. But police and
prosecutors, after first concentrating on the possibility that Gerardi was killed by a
common criminal during a robbery, shifted their focus into the bishop's own home.
In July they arrested Orantes and Margarita Lopez, the live-in cook for
Lopez was released a few weeks later, but Orantes has been held despite
deteriorating health. He learned of Wednesday's decision in a hospital where he is
being treated for stomach ailments and severe headaches.
During a five-hour hearing Tuesday, prosecutor Celvin Galindo told Judge
Monroy that FBI investigators called in after the murder found traces of blood in
Galindo, who took over the investigation last month after the first prosecutor
resigned under pressure, said the FBI reported that Gerardi was probably
attacked by more than one person, in two different parts of the residence. FBI
chemical sweeps of the residence turned up four different types of blood -- one of
them the bishop's -- at different locations.
Orantes' attorneys strongly denied that he had anything to do with the
said the priest would provide a blood sample to be tested against the evidence
collected by the FBI.
Police and prosecutors originally offered the theory that Orantes killed
after the bishop surprised him having sex with another man. Lately they have
suggested the killing had something to do with a string of church robberies.
Church and human rights officials insist the government is making up false
accusations to cover up evidence showing that the killing was carried out on
orders of military officers angered by the bishop's human rights report.
Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald