March 28, 2000

Guatemala probe raises concern for Menchu's safety

                  MADRID, Spain (Reuters) -- Human rights activists seeking to put former Guatemalan
                  dictators on trial for alleged genocide said Tuesday they were worried about the
                  safety of lead plaintiff and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu.

                  Menchu has often come under fire from the right wing in Guatemala for her high-profile
                  and sometimes controversial campaign to spotlight human rights abuses in Guatemala.

                  But her supporters said Menchu could be in even more danger now that a Spanish
                  court Monday agreed to her request for an investigation into human rights abuses
                  allegedly committed by the Central American nation's former military leaders.

                  "They (the Guatemalan military) have said that treason to your country is paid for with
                  your life, and if these threats come from a military that has committed genocide, you
                  have to take them seriously," Gustavo Meono, president of the Rigoberta Menchu
                  Foundation, told a news conference in Madrid.

                  "It would be dangerous and difficult to continue the process in Guatemala," he added.
                  He did not discuss whether Menchu, a Maya Indian who won the Nobel in 1992,
                  would seek temporary exile.

                  Menchu's case, lodged last December, accuses three former coup leaders and five of
                  their aides of genocide, torture and state terrorism as part of a counterinsurgency
                  campaign against Marxist guerrillas.

                  About 200,000 people -- mostly civilians -- died in a 36-year civil war in which Indian
                  villages were literally wiped off the map. The war ended with a peace accord in
                  December 1996.

                  Spanish lawyers said Tuesday they were confident that the accused former coup
                  leaders -- including Efrain Rios Montt, now president of Guatemala's congress --
                  would be tried in Spain.

                  If the accused "don't turn up to defend themselves voluntarily, we will be obliged to
                  seek international arrest warrants," prosecution lawyer Carlos Vila told a news
                  conference in Madrid.

                  "We could then reproduce the Pinochet case," said Vila, referring to former Chilean
                  dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in London in October 1998 on a Spanish
                  extradition request to try him on torture charges.

                  After a medical examination, authorities declared the aging general mentally unfit for
                  trial and allowed him to return to Chile earlier this month.

                     Copyright 2000 Reuters.