An exiled former general returned to Paraguay to face charges that he masterminded the alleged murder of a vice president.
BY KEVIN G. HALL
Knight Ridder News Service
ASUNCION, Paraguay - Former Armed Forces commander Lino Oviedo returned to Paraguay on Tuesday after five years of exile, declaring that he's innocent of charges that he plotted to overthrow the government and masterminded the alleged 1999 murder of the nation's vice president.
Oviedo's return was closely watched by the United States and throughout South America because he has the potential to destabilize Paraguay at a time when democratic stability is eroding in the region. Paraguay's military kept Oviedo's jubilant supporters more than a mile from the airport where the charismatic general landed.
The politician, a folk hero who enjoys a huge following among Paraguay's poor, ended his exile in Brazil draped in Paraguay's red, white and blue flag and dancing the high-stepping ''galopera'' folk dance while surrounded by supporters. Paraguayan lawmakers traveling with him from Brazil cheered as the plane entered Paraguayan airspace. Heavily armed police met Oviedo in Asunción and whisked him off to a military prison in the area.
Oviedo's lawyers argue that he can't be held there, however, because he must face civilian courts, not military justice, for crimes allegedly committed after he was removed from his command.
In an exclusive interview with Knight Ridder, Oviedo denied that he was behind the March 23, 1999, murder of Vice President Luis María Argaña.
The State Department has described as ''plausible'' allegations that Oviedo masterminded the murder. But recent evidence has surfaced to suggest that Argaña may have died on March 22 and that his assassination was staged the next day for the political benefit of his wing of the long-ruling Colorado Party.
Oviedo referred to the new evidence and said that now was the time to clear his name.
''I am returning so that my children don't feel like they are an assassin's children, and my wife does not feel like the wife of an assassin and that my party members and the Paraguayan people do not consider me an assassin,'' Oviedo said.
Oviedo and Argaña were bitter enemies in the struggle for control of the Colorado Party -- which has ruled without interruption since 1954 -- after the fall of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner's 35-year dictatorship in 1989.
Oviedo fled Paraguay on March 28, 1999, five days after the vice president's apparent assassination. He was first granted exile by Argentina in Ushuaia, at the southern tip of South America. He later disappeared during a trip to the dentist and surfaced in Brazil, where he was arrested in 2000 with a pistol and woman's wig. Brazil refused to extradite Oviedo.