The Miami Herald
February 18, 1999
Guatemala releases priest
Probe will continue into bishop's beating death

             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 since his
             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 of Bishop
             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 that
             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 both men.
             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 Henry
             Monroy that FBI investigators called in after the murder found traces of blood in
             Orantes' room.

             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 murder, and
             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 Gerardi
             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.


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