Sunday, October 02, 2005

Guatemala Activists Oppose Military Courts Bill

Legislation would ban criminal prosecution of soldiers
and officers in civilian venues. Critics say it would
create 'a climate of impunity.'
By Héctor Tobar, Times Staff Writer

GUATEMALA CITY — Proposed legislation putting
military personnel beyond the reach of civilian courts
has drawn strong opposition from Guatemalan human
rights activists haunted by the excesses of previous
military rule.

Backed by the Guatemalan Republican Front and other
rightist parties, as well as the country's powerful
lobby of active and retired army generals, the bill
would modify Guatemala's 19th century code of military
conduct and transfer criminal prosecutions of soldiers
and officers to military courts.

Human rights activists and judicial experts here
argue that the law could halt a number of prosecutions
against military officers on corruption charges.

"This law creates a climate of impunity," said
Iduvina Hernandez of Security in Democracy, a military
watchdog group. "It's a law written in a spirit of
cowardice that favors the corrupt."

Hernandez and other activists here say the law would
halt the prosecutions of officers charged in a
$100-million embezzlement case, and block corruption
and human rights charges against former military ruler
Efrain Rios Montt, who presided over an especially
bloody chapter of Guatemalan history.

Backers of the law say it is merely an attempt to
bring an outdated military justice system into the
modern era.

"The existing code was written 120 years ago and is
out of date," said Juan Santacruz, a congressional
deputy with the Guatemalan Republican Front. "People
have been trying to create confusion about the spirit
of the reform."

Santacruz contends the legislation would not affect
current prosecutions of military officials on
corruption charges. Human rights activists disagree,
and see the bill as a first step of a wider rollback
of civilian control over the military.

Opponents of the bill say it violates a key provision
of the 1996 treaty between the government and leftist
rebels that ended the country's long civil war. It
stipulates that "ordinary crimes and misdemeanors
committed by military personnel will be tried in
ordinary courts."

Otto Perez Molina, a retired general and
congressional deputy representing the Patriot Party,
acknowledged that the measure contradicts the treaty.
But he said the reforms had been discussed between the
military and the rebels during their negotiations a
decade ago.

"We've been talking about this since then," Perez
Molina said. "We want this to be decided in a public
debate…. What we want is that everyone be equal before
the law."

Human rights activist Helen Mack says the legislation
would further weaken a judicial system that has proved
incapable of prosecuting those charged with human
rights violations committed during decades of military

"The military already has so much influence over the
judicial system that they have a de facto amnesty from
human rights prosecutions," said Mack, whose sister
Myrna was killed by a military death squad in 1990.

Myrna Mack was an anthropologist who was
investigating the effect of the Guatemalan military's
"scorched earth" policy on the country's Mayan

Her killing is one of the few crimes attributed to
the military that has been successfully prosecuted. An
army colonel was convicted in the killing but he was
freed pending appeal and fled the country.

If the bill is passed, Mack said, it would only
demonstrate "the continuing weakness and the decay of
the Guatemalan justice system."

Perez Molina said opposition could lead the bill's
backers to postpone debate on it until next year.

Times researcher Alex Renderos in San Salvador
contributed to this report.

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