Justice in Guatemala

Article excerpt

IN A LANDMARK decision that offers hope for the remaking of Guatemala's war-torn political landscape, a court has convicted three military officers and a priest of the murder of a Catholic bishop. The court also ordered government prosecutors to investigate others who may have been involved in the killing.

Retired Colonel Disrael Lima Estrada, Captain Byron Lima Oliva and Sergeant Jose Villanueva each received 30-year sentences on June 8 for murdering Juan Gerardi Conedera, auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City. The prelate, a champion of human rights, was beaten to death in April 1998, just two days after releasing a report blaming the military for most of the abuses committed during the country's 36-year civil war, during which 200,000 people died.

Mario Orantes, a priest who shared a residence with Bishop Gerardi, received a 20-year sentence for complicity in the murder. The bishop's housekeeper, Margarita Lopez, was acquitted of a charge that she helped destroy evidence of the killing.

"All of Guatemala is happy because of this significant step toward eliminating impunity," said the bishop of El Quiche, Julio Cabrera. "And achieving justice in this case gives us hope that we can get justice for crimes committed against ordinary people. We received justice in this case only because the victim was a bishop. Now we need justice in the cases of the tens of thousands of victims who were poor."

The verdict was the result of a long and tortuous process. Since the bishop's death three years ago, six witnesses, a prosecutor and a judge linked to the case have fled the country in fear of their lives. There have been numerous threats against those seeking to bring the case to trial. A judge's home was bombed the night before the trial opened in March.

During the 46-day trial, the three-judge panel heard more than 100 witnesses, listened as 80 documents were read, and watched 60 hours of videos made during the investigation of the case. …