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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
trial as an accessory to the killing, Cojulun said.
State prosecutor Leopoldo Zeissig said he would see the trial through,
of inevitable intimidation.
"The threats are still coming all the time," Zeissig, who took over the
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
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
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
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
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.