A Honduran judge yesterday ordered 11 current and former military officials not to leave the country while he considers charges against them of kidnapping and torturing student activists during the 1980s.
The order came as the commander of the Honduran military expressed his full confidence in the accused men and promised the military's full support for them.
Yesterday's order by Judge Roy Medina is the latest step in the process of investigating and prosecuting military officers responsible for the torture and murder of hundreds of people in Honduras during the early 1980s.
Judge Medina, of the First Criminal Court in Tegucigalpa, is reviewing indictments delivered to him Tuesday by Sonia Marlina de Flores, the assistant attorney general for human rights, to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to arrest the accused and hold them for trial.
He said he had ordered Honduran immigration officials to deny exit visas to them.
"It is an act of caution because I want these men to be available at the time that we decide to call them in to testify," Judge Medina said in a telephone interview from Honduras. "I also want them to be here if we decide at any moment that there is enough evidence to arrest them."
He added, "I cannot say at this moment whether there is enough evidence to arrest them and send them to trial."
The 11 former and present military officers include Col. Alexander Hernandez, former commander of Battalion 316, alleged to be responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses during the 1980s.
The secret intelligence unit was trained and equipped by the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s when Honduras was the staging ground for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.
Colonel Hernandez is now a high-ranking officer in the Honduran police.
The indictments came six weeks after the activities of Battalion 316 and the firsthand accounts of its members and victims were described in a four-part series of articles by The Sun. In the indictments, the men were charged with the abduction and torture in 1982 of six university students, who were interviewed for The Sun series.
As Judge Medina issued his restrictions on the 11 military suspects, the chief of the Honduran armed forces said in an interview on Honduran radio that the men could count on the moral support and "solidarity" of the military.
Gen. Luis Alonso Discua warned that armed forces officials would closely monitor the proceedings to make sure they are fair and not an effort by leftists to seek vengeance for acts of brutality in the 1980s.
"We hope that the courts act with honesty, without prejudice, and with the utmost respect," he said. "I believe that there is judicial fairness. And if that is the case, and there is no prejudice, the courts will act with clear justice."
He added, "There is only one other thing I have to say: All the officers of the armed forces have our support and the solidarity of all the institution. Of this there should be no doubt."
Many of the human rights abuses under investigation by Assistant Attorney General Flores occurred more than a decade ago, and the government has said it wishes to bring the guilty parties to justice. But some individuals who testified about atrocities in the past were murdered, and an atmosphere of intimidation still prevails in Honduras.
Witnesses in the present case are fearful, Ms. Flores said this week. "There is not a real atmosphere of security here," she said.
General Discua, the armed forces chief, was involved with Battalion 316. He was appointed head of the unit early in 1984, replacing Colonel Hernandez, who heads the list of military men indicted this week.
General Discua's promotion to command the intelligence unit came shortly before the ouster of Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez as head of the Honduran armed forces. General Alvarez, the architect of Battalion 316, was assassinated in 1989.
During the 1980s, the Honduran military kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundreds of people accused of subversion in an effort wipe out communist groups. At least 184 people are still missing and presumed dead. They are believed to be victims of Battalion 316.
In the four-part series last month, The Sun reported that the CIA and State Department worked with Battalion 316 even though U.S. officials knew of its abuses.
The Sun reported that in order to keep up public support for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America, U.S. officials deliberately misled Congress and the public about the Honduran military's activities.
The collaboration and deception were revealed in previously classified documents and in interviews with U.S. and Honduran participants. Those interviewed included three former Battalion 316 torturers who acknowledged their roles and detailed the battalion's close relationship with the CIA.
The Honduran attorney general's office began the investigation that led to this week's indictments about six months ago.
Ms. Flores said more than 25 people have testified so far, but that for the security of witnesses, the evidence presented to the court is sealed.
In addition to Colonel Hernandez, retired Gen. Amilcar Zelaya, former head of the Honduran police force, also was charged.
The other military officials charged include: Col. Juan Lopez Grijalba, who served as head of Honduran military intelligence; Col. Julio Cesar Funez, who served as head of investigations in the National Department of Investigations (DNI); Col. Manuel de Jesus Trejo, also a former member of DNI; and Lt. Col. Juan Blas Salazar, the former director of DNI, who is in jail on drug charges.
Charges also were presented against Col. Juan Evangelista Lopez, Col. Juan Ramon Pena Paz, Col. Roberto Arnaldo Erazo, Col. Jorge Alberto Padilla and Capt. Billy Joya.
The men are all charged in the kidnapping and torture of the six students arrested at their home by some 20 armed men in civilian clothes on April 27, 1982. Among those abducted were Milton Jimenez, then a 20-year-old law student; Suyapa Rivera; and her sister, Gilda.
Mr. Jimenez told The Sun he was beaten and threatened with death before a mock firing squad. The Rivera sisters were kept naked in a clandestine cell in the home of a Honduran officer.
That home belonged to General Zelaya, former head of the Honduran police force, who was charged in this week's indictments, according to Ms. Flores.
"His house was used as a secret jail," she said. "That is where the students were tortured."