A Trial for Guatemala's Military ; the Case of Five Accused in a Catholic Bishop's Murder Is Expected to Last at Least Three Months

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Guatemalans are riveted to a high-profile murder trial here that is being seen as a landmark case for human rights.

Security is tight as the third week unfolds in a trial of three military and two other defendants accused in the killing of Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi.

Human rights activists say the case marks a milestone in a nation where the military long operated with impunity. The proceedings put Guatemala at the forefront of Latin American nations struggling toward a reckoning with their authoritarian pasts.

A champion of human rights, Gerardi was slain in 1998, two days after he released a report attributing more than 90 percent of the 200,000 deaths in Guatemala's civil war to military and paramilitary groups.

"This case is an example of how the generalized idea in Latin America that military should not have to answer for crimes is breaking down," says Manola Vela, a researcher with the liberal think tank Flacso in Guatemala City. He adds that the trial is "part of a more general trend in the region."

Others say that trend is actually a rising tide of anti-military sentiment that makes a fair trial impossible.

"This is a highly political case, and I am skeptical that it will bring to justice those who are truly guilty," says Hector Lopez Bonilla, a Guatemala City political analyst and retired lieutenant colonel. "In international and national public opinion, a preconception prevails that the Army was involved. And since there are [members of the Army] on trial, they are presumed guilty."

Several other Latin American countries are moving toward reexamining their years under junta dictatorship, with an eye to prosecuting cases of deaths and disappearances.

Last month an Argentine court struck down two amnesty laws, opening the way for mid-level and junior military officers to be tried for crimes during the nation's 1976-83 "dirty war" against leftists and suspected leftists.

Efforts began two years ago toward bringing former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet to trial for abuses committed during his rule.

In Peru, police recently arrested two retired generals allegedly linked to a paramilitary group that killed 15 Lima residents suspected of being leftist rebels. The action came after an InterAmerican Human Rights court request that Peru repeal amnesty laws protecting military from human rights charges.

It has been a three-year battle to get the Gerardi case to court. A judge, a prosecutor, and a key prosecution witness fled the country after saying they had received death threats. Two grenades exploded at the house of one of the presiding judges the night before the trial opened.

The military defendants, being tried on murder charges, are the former head of military intelligence, retired Army Col. …