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Human Rights Developments

In 1996, the attorney general=s office, the national commissioner for human rights, and private human rights groups pressed forward with efforts to establish accountability for gross human rights violations which occurred in the 1980s. Their courageous initiatives were thwarted, however, by the refusal of the alleged perpetrators to appear in court, the failure of the police to carry out arrest warrants, and the inability of the judicial system to act independently when pressured by the armed forces. The government of President Carlos Roberto Reina took positive steps to institutionalize civilian control of the police and to reduce the excessive authority enjoyed by the military. The fact that on March 26, a grenade was thrown from a passing vehicle at the home of President Reina in Tegucigalpa, underscored the risks inherent in taking these positive steps.

Criminal charges were filed this year and arrest warrants issued for Maj. Manuel de Jesús Trejo Rosa and Col. Raimundo Alexander Hernández Santos for the murder of Nelson Mackay Chavarría and the attempted murder of Miguel Francisco Carias in 1982. Colonel Hernández was for many years operational commander of Battalion 3-16, a secret military intelligence unit responsible for scores of Adisappearances@ in the 1980s. Hernández, who had been continually promoted by his superiors despite his well-documented role in death squad activities, is now wanted for three separate cases of atrocities. He and Trejo remained at large as of this writing.

Eight retired and two active-duty members of the armed forces charged in 1995 for their role in the 1982 kidnapping, torture, and attempted murder of six student activists, also refused to appear in court. On February 19, the other fugitive in this case, Capt. Billy Fernando Joya Almendola, held a televised press conference. Still the police failed to detain him. In April, the civilian criminal investigations unit of the Honduran police detained former police agent Jorge Antonio Padilla Torres, who allegedly participated in the capture of the students, although he was later released for insufficient evidence.

On January 5, the First Appellate Court ruled that an amnesty law passed in 1991 applied in cases of members of the armed forces charged with Adisappearances.@ President Reina and then-Armed Forces Chief Luis Alonso Discua Elvir publicly applauded the court=s unfortunate decision.

On January 19, the Supreme Court of Justice of Honduras unanimously overruled the lower court, finding that the amnesty laws passed in 1987 and 1991 did not preclude judicial investigation of human rights violations.

On June 24, Judge Celino Aguilera of the Choluteca district court issued arrest warrants for nineteen men charged in the case of the June 1982 forced Adisappearance@ and execution in June 1982 of Adán Aviles Fúnez and Amado Espinoza, among them police and military officers. On July 19, one of the men, Col. Aben Claros Méndez, appeared in court and was detained. However, when Claros provided an alibi, the judge granted him provisional liberty, even though Claros was under investigation for instigating, rather than directly participating in, the crime.

In April, the Reina government granted political asylum to two Haitians wanted for numerous gross violations of human rights in Haiti, in violation of international treaties which limit political asylum for individuals who have acted against the founding principles of the United Nations, which include human rights and international law. This unethical measure to protect Lt. Gen. Michel François and Col. Franck Romain helped those individuals escape justice in Haiti, where their alleged crimes included extrajudicial execution and torture. Human Rights Watch/Americas protested this decision to the Reina government, whose foreign minister, Délmer Urbizo Panting, responded, AThe demands of Americas Watch [sic] have no importance for us...,@ according to press accounts.

We also protested the decision to appoint former Armed Forces Chief Luis Alonso Discua as the government=s alternate delegate to the U.N. Discua had been linked to serious human rights violations and, according to U.S. documents declassified in 1996, had boasted of forming Battalion 3-16. Sending Discua to a gilded exile in the U.N.=s posh New York headquarters represented an affront to the United Nations= avowed purpose of promoting respect for human rights, not to mention providing an undeserved bonus for the general. Later in the year, Discua=s status was downgraded to Aadvisor.@

Local human rights groups continued to report homicides resulting from police abuse of authority, although at diminished levels compared with the 1980s and early 1990s. The exception to this positive trend was the performance of regional police commandos (COREs), which engaged in abuses including the extrajudicial executions of supposed criminals. The commander of CORE-7, Lt. Col. David Abraham Mendoza García, named in five different lawsuits, was charged with assassination, abuse of authority and violation of the duties of an official.

In a welcome move, the Honduran government ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment in 1996. As of this writing, the National Congress was considering reforms to the criminal code which would codify torture as a crime and assign penalties of five to fifteen years to government officials who engage in torture, with lighter penalties for private citizens found guilty.

In another positive development, on September 8, 1995, the National Congress approved constitutional reforms necessary to pass the main police force from military to civilian control. A vote on the ratification of the constitutional reforms was expected before the end of 1996. Military control of the police was long identified as a source of human rights violations in Honduras, and abuses declined after the criminal investigations police was placed under civilian control in 1994.

In other areas, Honduras=s record remained poor. Prison conditions continued to be substandard, and Honduras had one of the highest rates of incarceration of unconvicted prisoners in the worldCmore than 90 percentCin the world. The illegal detention of minors with adults was commonplace, in violation of the Honduran constitution and international human rights treaties to which Honduras is a state party. Several cases in which minors were physically and sexually abused by adult prisoners were reported in 1996 and one minor in prison, Carlos Enrique Jako, was murdered.

The Right to Monitor

A series of threats and attacks against human rights monitors, critics of the army, and those seeking justice in human rights cases demonstrated the continued dangers associated with the pursuit of truth and justice in Honduras. The authorities failed to prosecute anyone responsible for these attacks and threats.

On February 10, unknown men machine gunned the vehicle of Carlos Turcios, a congressional deputy who had just spoken out against the naming of General Discua to the U.N. Security Council.

On June 17, two unidentified men shot dead public defender Marlen Zepeda in San Pedro Sula. Zepeda had received threats related to one of her cases and told friends she feared reprisals from the police.

The step-daughter of Dr. Ramón Custodio López, the head of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras, died under unclear circumstances on June 5. Mercedes Emilia Burgos Espinoza=s death was reported as a suicide. Her car had crashed into an electrical post, and she suffered a gunshot to the head. On July 17, Dr. Custodio and the victim=s mother publicly stated that she had been assassinated as a reprisal for Dr. Custodio=s human rights work and that since her death, Custodio and his wife had received anonymous threatening phone calls.

In July, the Public Ministry discovered about 4,000 background files on human rights advocates, government officials, judges, politicians, and journalists among the dossiers of suspected leftistsCmany of them victims of Adisappearance@Cin a military intelligence office. The files included such information as the floor plans of homes, the names of children, and the schools they attended. Although many files were obviously compiled in the 1980s, the content of others indicated that the military continued surveillance of civilians.

The Role of the United States

The United States owes a tremendous debt to Honduran victims of human rights abuses because of its substantial, prolonged support for human rights abusers in the military. Washington provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Honduran military in the 1980s, and engaged in a covert program of direct assistance to Battalion 3-16 which carried out scores of Adisappearances@ of suspected subversives. Moreover, those courageous Hondurans who reported on military abuses of human rights were rewarded with scorn and defamation from the U.S. Embassy and State Department. These U.S. policies reflected Washington=s desire to counter leftist forces in Central America, regardless of the cost to human rights.

As part of their efforts to investigate and prosecute military officers who commanded Battalion 3-16, the Honduran attorney general and the national commissioner for human rights have repeatedly requested the declassification of documents in U.S. agencies= files regarding Battalion 3-16. The most significant of these files may be held by the Central Intelligence Agency, which supported, trained, and worked closely with Battalion 3-16 during the 1980s, according to Honduran and U.S. government officials. While the State Department provided some materials in response to these requests in 1996, all other agencies failed to respond. The Clinton administration=s failure to insist on CIA and Pentagon disclosure of information on Battalion 3-16 was a shameful betrayal of those seeking justice in Honduras and was most likely motivated by a desire to avoid embarrassing and incriminating disclosures about CIA involvement with human rights violators.

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