Human Rights Watch today welcomed the decision of a Guatemalan court to
convict two army officers for their participation in the 1998 killing of Bishop Juan Gerardi.
"The trial's outcome marks the end of an era in Guatemala," said Jos?Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. "For the first time, a Guatemalan court has ruled that army officers cannot get away with murder."
A three-judge tribunal found retired army Col. Byron Lima Estrada and his army captain son Byron Lima Oliva guilty of murder and sentenced them each to 30 years in prison. Also convicted were former presidential bodyguard Jos?Obdulio Villanueva and Roman Catholic priest Mario Orantes.
Bishop Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in April 1998 two days after he released the Catholic Church's report on wartime abuses, titled "Guatemala: Never Again." The report concluded that the Guatemalan military was responsible for the vast majority of the war's 200,000 dead. A 1999 report by a U.N.-sponsored truth commission confirmed the church's findings, finding that the army had engaged in systematic human rights violations, including torture, forced disappearance and acts of genocide.
Until now, no military officer had been successfully prosecuted for human rights abuses in Guatemala. A major obstacle to carrying out prosecutions has been the intimidation of prosecutors, judges and witnesses through terror tactics. In this regard, the Gerardi trial was no exception. One judge, one prosecutor and several witnesses were forced by death threats to flee the country. Grenades exploded in the backyard of another judge two days before the trial began.
"By refusing to be intimidated, and bringing the trial to a fair conclusion, the judges and prosecutors have taken an important step toward strengthening the rule of law in Guatemala," said Vivanco.