Human Rights Developments
The special prosecutor for human rights brought charges in July against eight retired and two active-duty members of the armed forces for their role in the kidnaping, torture, and attempted murder in 1982 of six student activists: Guillermo López, Edwin López, Milton Jiménez, Marlen Jiménez, Gilda Rivera, and Suyapa Rivera. The six were taken from a Tegucigalpa apartment early on the morning of April 27, 1982, by fifteen armed men dressed in civilian clothes. They survived their captivity in a clandestine prison because two of those abducted were the daughters of a government official.
On October 17, Judge Roy Medina, assigned to oversee the investigation, concluded that there was sufficient evidence to order the arrest of three of the ten officers. (The arrest warrants were suspended on October 18 pending a review by the Court of Appeals.) Of the three, the most prominent is Lt. Col. Alexander Hernández, who was the operational commander of the infamous Battalion 3-16 in the early 1980s and is now inspector general of the military police. The other two wanted officers, both retired, are Police Maj. Manuel de Jesús Trejo Rosa and Capt. Billy Fernando Joya Améndola.
With the exception of one suspect, those under investigation were connected with Battalion 3-16, a secret Honduran military unit whose members were instructed by and worked with CIA officials. The battalion detained scores of leftist activists, including students, teachers, unionists, and suspected guerrillas who then disappeared. Members of the unit employed torture techniques including electric shock and suffocation to interrogate their victims, later killing and burying them in unmarked graves.
In what was widely viewed as a "saber rattling" reaction to the charges brought by the special prosecutor, the military deployed armored personnel carriers and artillery in the capital for one day in early August. This move came immediately after Leo Valladares Lanza, the National Commissioner for Human Rights, announced that he had submitted a second request to the U.S. government for documents relating to the military's role in the abuses of the 1980s. General Luis Alonso Discua, commander of the armed forces and a former commander of Battalion 3-16, stated that "the armed forces will adopt actions if there is any problem of partiality in the courts." Afterward, Discua explained that the tanks had been deployed as an "exercise" in preparation for a military celebration the next day. In fact, the celebration was never held.
In early October, threats of violence escalated against those involved in the trial of the ten officers. Two men in a vehicle reportedly opened fire on the courthouse where the trial was being held. As they did so, according to the Baltimore Sun, they shouted, "Where is that [expletive] Medina? Tell him to come out so we can kill him!"
Violent tactics were accompanied by an unwillingness of the officers to rely on standard legal means of defense. On October 10, Carlos López Osorio, the lawyer for the ten officers, announced that his clients would not present themselves in court despite a summons to appear. Calling the proceedings a farce, he declared that the disappearances and other abuses were covered by the amnesty laws passed in 1987 and 1991.
As a matter of law, the amnesty does not cover the egregious violations committed by members of Battalion 3-16. Unlike the sweeping amnesties passed in Peru, in Guatemala under military rule, and in El Salvador after the Truth Commission report, the Honduran amnesty is extremely restrictive. The grant of amnesty applies only to "persons sentenced, prosecuted, or subjected to judicial investigation" at the time the law went into force in 1991. Because none of the officials involved in Battalion 3-16's human rights violations was subject to any form of judicial proceeding in 1991, the amnesty does not preclude judicial investigation or prosecution of their cases. Further, the amnesty law covers political acts executed in opposition to the state. In contrast, the military undertook its campaign of human rights abuse in support of the state and as a matter of state policy. The military's argument that the amnesty applies to the actions of Battalion 3-16 is fundamentally in contradiction with the letter and intent of the legislation.
The government took several other encouraging steps during the year. In December 1994, a team of forensic anthropologists identified the remains of Nelson Mackay Chavarría. Mackay, a lawyer who, despite his connections to the military, was detained and "disappeared" on February 21, 1982, at the age of thirty-one. Mackay's alleged co-conspirator, Miguel Carias, testified that the two were held together in a house in Tegucigalpa used by Battalion 3-16 as a secret jail. Carias was locked in a closet, where he could hear Mackay repeating the Hail Mary, his voice growing louder with each recitation. The investigation into Mackay's disappearance, conducted at the request of the attorney general's office, was still in its initial stages as of this writing.
In April, the National Assembly ratified an amendment to the Honduran Constitution providing for a system of voluntary military service. The amendment represented a rejection of the arbitrary and abusive enlistment methods employed by the military during the 1980s, when army press gangs regularly dragged young men from buses, theaters and other public places, and off the streets, selecting the best for forced recruitment and returning the rest to their families for a price.
Local rights groups noted that reported cases of torture and other abuses by police diminished in 1995. At the same time, public confidence in the authorities appeared to increase, making it more likely that such cases would be reported. These improvements followed the reassignment in June 1994 of the main police investigatory branch to civilian control. Most reports of torture charged the abuses to FUSEP, the military police, rather than the civilian Department of Criminal Investigations.
The government failed to make headway in improving prison conditions, such as the practice of illegally detaining minors with adult prisoners in penitentiaries. An August 1 report prepared by the National Commission for Human Rights documented over 200 cases of minors jailed together with adults in seventeen of the twenty-four adult prisons in Honduras. The detention of minors under these conditions is in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the American Convention on Human Rights, as well as the Honduran Constitution. The children jailed in these conditions are frequently the target of abuse or sexual assault at the hands of their adult cellmates, as a commission composed of members of the judiciary, the Public Ministry, and the public defenders organization acknowledged in April. To date, only three or four prisons have announced plans to provide separate facilities for minors.
The Right to Monitor
Judge Roy Medina, who was hearing the inquiry against the ten army officers, reported that he has received numerous death threats. After two men fired upon the criminal courthouse in Tegucigalpa while shouting threats against his life, the judge accepted a bodyguard. Increasing tensions throughout Tegucigalpa and elsewhere in Honduras led the Honduran Supreme Court to post security agents at courthouses and at the homes of Supreme Court judges and other judges who were hearing cases sensitive to the military.
Local human rights monitors reported that the military has conducted a campaign in the media to denounce those who have leveled charges of human rights violations against the military. In particular, the military targeted the six former student leaders who were temporarily "disappeared" in 1982.
Deutch's announcement came after the Baltimore Sun published a four-part series in June on U.S. support given to Battalion 3-16. Sun staff correspondents Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson obtained formerly classified documents and interviewed three former Battalion 3-16 torturers to document the breadth and depth of the battalion's close relationship to the CIA. The Sun series followed revelations in March that linked the CIA to serious human rights violations in Guatemala (see Guatemala section).
In addition, various U.S. government agencies agreed jointly in October to proceed with declassification of U.S. government records pertaining to disappearances and other human rights abuses in Honduras. The decision to declassify came just as the New York Times was preparing an editorial criticizing the administration's lack of response to requests from Honduran officials. Prior to the New York Time's decision to publicize the administration's failure to act, all U.S. agencies had balked at Commissioner Valladares' two requests for documents and a third from the office of the Honduran attorney general's office. The State Department insisted that Valladares provide a more narrow list of materials for declassification. The National Security Council, the CIA, and the Department of Defense simply ignored the requests.
The administration's decision also followed the Senate's passage of an amendment to the Foreign Aid Appropriations Bill on September 20. The amendment, sponsored by Senators Leahy (D-VT), Dodd (D-CT), and Sarbanes (D-MD), called upon the Clinton administration to declassify documents relating to disappearances in Honduras.
A meeting in September between Commissioner Valladares and State Department officials in Washington resulted in the release of some documents. These included State Department cables on the disappearance and murder of Father James Carney in 1983, excerpts from an interrogation manual, and reports from an investigation and closed hearings on Battalion 3-16 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 1988. However, these documents had already been declassified as the result of prior FOIA requests, and most had already been made public through other sources.
Human Rights Watch/Americas called upon the Clinton administration to muster the political will to let the truth be known about the disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions that took place in Honduras and the U.S. role in those violations. We welcome the executive branch's decision to proceed with declassification of documents. The administration's announcement is an important first step. In particular, the administration should resist the temptation to delete materials on the grounds that they would cause embarrassment to U.S. officials or harm relations with the Honduran military and intelligence services.
In 1995, the Honduran police received training in criminal investigations techniques as well as aid to the judiciary. The armed forces received an estimated US$400,000 in military training and $1.5 million in arms sales. Human Rights Watch/Americas urged the U.S. government to use its training programs as a means of conveying to the Honduran military the need for subordination to the civilian authorities and the importance of allowing trials of military officers to go forward. We urged the U.S. to cut off all assistance as a response to any further efforts by the Honduran armed forces to obstruct justice or intimidate witnesses, prosecutors, or judges in these cases.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Americas
Human Rights Watch/Americas has prodded the Clinton administration and congressional oversight committees to enact reforms of CIA rules and procedures so that the abuses of the 1980s cannot recur. In August, a letter summarizing our reform proposals was published in The New York Times (see Human Rights Watch/Americas Overview).
In November, Human Rights Watch/Americas sent letters to Honduran government officials regarding the cases of over twenty minors detained in three prisons in Yoro and La Ceiba.