|Gerardi Trial: Verdict Is In|
Verdict Convicts and Sentences Four
6/8/01 - In Guatemala City, at 4:30 a.m. on Friday June 8, 2001, a three-judge tribunal handed down convictions on charges of extrajudicial execution to retired army Col. Byron Lima Estrada; his son army Capt. Byron Lima Oliva, and Jose Obdulio Villanueva, a former specialist for the Presidential Security Guard (EMP) for the murder of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi Conadera. The judges sentenced them each to 30 years in prison. Roman Catholic priest and housemate of Bishop Gerardi, Mario Orantes, was sentenced to 20 years as an accessory. Margarita L?pez, rectory cook accused of cleaning up the bloody garage, was exonerated.
A courtroom packed with human rights observers, journalists - and for a few
hours even the U.S. ambassador, Prudence Bushnell - waited all night for the
highly anticipated verdict. Others held a candlelit vigil outside with banners bearing Gerardi's image. Dressed in a medal-laden military uniform as police led him away in handcuffs, Lima Oliva, who had remained stone-faced throughout the sentencing, accused judges of taking bribes in the case. Lawyers for the defendants said they would appeal the sentences. Prosecutors never said who bashed Gerardi's head with a cinder block. The three-judge panel recommended prosecutors investigate a list of other suspects, including three more members of the presidential military guard.
Investigations Continue for Involvement and Perjury
In addition to the convictions of the four men brought to trial, there will be follow-up investigations and further legal proceedings brought against Guatemalans who may have involvement in Bishop Gerardi's assasination, as
well as trial witnesses who will be investigated for perjury. The three judge tribual ordered the Public Ministry to investigate EMP officials Rudy Vinicio Pozuelos Alegria, Francisco Escobar Blas, Eduardo Villagran Alfaro,
and Carlos Rene Alvarado Fernandez as well as Julio Manuel Melendez Crispin
and Dario Morales, who took photographs inside of Gerardi's house after the
crime was committed.
On the charge of perjury, there will be follow-up investigations into the
sworn testimonies of trial witnesses: Jose Obdulio Vllanueva Arevalo, Hugo
Juventino Najera Ruiz, Santos Enrique Hernandez Perez, Eddy Medrano Garcia,
and Misael Alberto Chinchilla Monzon.
Reactions to the Verdict
"This is really historic," said Tracy Ulltveit-Moe, an Amnesty International
researcher who attended the reading of the verdict. "Not only is it the first time high-ranking military officers are sentenced, but Bishop Gerardi was the highest ranking member of the Church to be killed in an extrajudicial manner. People here began to lose hope, thinking: If they couldn't get justice in this case, what hope is there?"
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher applauded the
judges' courage and urged the government to protect them from reprisals.
"We encourage the Government of Guatemala to continue its efforts to
strengthen the rule of law by addressing impunity in other unresolved human
rights cases," he said.
"This sentence shows us that all the years of fighting haven't been in
vain," human rights activist Helen Mack said as she wiped away tears after
"We are strengthening the system of justice in Guatemala," said Miguel
Albizures, head of the Alliance Against Impunity, a human rights group. "We
are fighting against impunity that the military has had since the 1980s."
"This verdict was political, resulting from pressure from the press and
human rights community," said Orantes' attorney, Jos? Toledo.
"They have not received a fair trial," Roberto Echeverria, the attorney for
the Limas, said in an interview shortly before the trial's end. As Lima
Oliva exited the courtroom in his army uniform, he declared: ``I am a good
soldier, and I will continue fighting to prove our innocence. We are going
Minister of Foreign Relations, Gabriel Orellana, admitted that the Gerardi
trial's verdict removed international pressure on the country . "This helps
the country's image, internationally," he said.
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