February 2, 2001

Trial to begin in death of Guatemalan bishop

                  GUATEMALA CITY (AP) -- The case of the slaying of human rights crusader
                  Bishop Juan Gerardi is finally set to go to trial, after almost three years of
                  outlandish theories, arrests, re-arrests and key witnesses and judges fleeing the

                  Judge Jose Eduardo Cojulun, part of a three-judge panel that will oversee the
                  proceedings, announced Thursday that oral arguments will begin Feb. 15 -- and
                  feature testimony from 112 of the 200-plus witnesses prosecutors and defense
                  attorneys wanted to call.

                  Gerardi, head of the Roman Catholic Church's Human Rights Office in
                  Guatemala, was bludgeoned to death on April 26, 1998, in the garage of the
                  northern Guatemala City seminary where he lived and worked.

                  He was killed two days after delivering the church's human rights report, which
                  implicated Guatemala's military in more than 90 percent of the 200,000 deaths
                  which occurred during this country's 36-year civil war.

                  More than 10 people have been arrested and later cleared of wrongdoing in
                  connection with the case -- which has seen two judges, a trio of key witnesses
                  and a prosecutor flee the country fearing for their lives.

                  Jailed and facing murder charges are retired army Col. Disrael Lima and his son,
                  active Sgt. Byron Lima. Jose Obdulio Villanueva, a former member of the
                  notorious presidential security team with reputed military ties and a prior murder
                  conviction, is also in custody.

                  All three have been arrested, released on appeal and arrested again in the past

                  Also charged with murder is the Rev. Mario Orantes, who lived in the seminary
                  and served as Gerardi's assistant. Orantes, who told authorities he found
                  Gerardi's body, has been under house arrest in a posh Guatemala City hospital
                  since March, suffering from nervous system and heart problems that have never
                  been fully explained.

                  Shortly after Gerardi's death, Orantes was arrested and charged with murder as
                  part of a convoluted theory alleging a bisexual love triangle involving Gerardi,
                  Orantes and church cook Margarita Lopez. Lopez was released just days after
                  her arrest. After seven months in jail, Orantes was freed -- but only after human
                  rights groups clamored that prosecutors were overlooking obvious military
                  involvement in the killing.

                  Judge Cojulun said Thursday that Orantes will remain hospitalized through the
                  start of the trial -- pending his examination by court-appointed doctors to decide
                  if he is well enough to be taken to prison. It will be the fourth such examination
                  in less than a year.

                  Lopez was released from her second stint in police custody last fall but will stand
                  trial as an accessory to the killing, Cojulun said.

                  State prosecutor Leopoldo Zeissig said he would see the trial through, regardless
                  of inevitable intimidation.

                  "The threats are still coming all the time," Zeissig, who took over the Gerardi
                  investigation in October 1999, told The Associated Press. "The phone calls, the
                  notes, all of these things are trying to stop us from doing our jobs."

                  The 112 witnesses scheduled to testify as part of Guatemala's most famous
                  murder trial include ex-President Alvaro Arzu, who ran the country until last
                  year, and current Government Minister Byron Barrientos.

                  Also due to appear is the former head of the presidential guard, a secret security
                  force which employed Villanueva and was infamous for doing the military's dirty
                  work, and the former head of Guatemala's national police force.

                  A Spanish forensic expert who exhumed Gerardi's body to investigate and
                  ultimately debunk a theory that Orantes' crippled German shepherd was in on the
                  killing, is also scheduled to testify.

                  Cojulun said it would take the court at least three months to hear all the
                  testimony. He said three video tapes will be included as evidence. One tape
                  features footage of the crime scene in the hours after Gerardi's death, and was
                  apparently shot by Byron Lima.

                  Nery Rodenas, who succeeded Gerardi as the head of the Catholic human rights
                  office, said dozens of international human rights groups will observe the trial to
                  ensure fairness.

                  News that the trial would go ahead was welcomed by many Guatemalans.

                  "After all the lies and craziness the courts are finally going to try and make sense
                  of this crime," said Pedro Sanchez, a Guatemala City cellular telephone salesmen.
                  "I think the country can only wish them good luck. There are a lot of very
                  strange things to consider."

                  Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.