Honduran military men refuse to testify 10 officers linked to Battalion 316 defy court, claim amnesty; Inquiry is called a farce; CIA-trained unit implicated in kidnap, torture and murders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Ten Honduran military officers will defy a court summons to answer questions about their roles in human rights abuses a dozen years ago when a secret army unit trained by the CIA was kidnapping, torturing and murdering suspected subversives, the officers' attorney said yesterday.

The move here came as the Clinton administration said it would speed up the declassification of documents pertaining to the period when the CIA is suspected of collaborating with the unit known as Battalion 316.

The 10 former and present military officers refusing to appear in court here have been specifically accused of kidnapping and torturing six university students in 1982. Their case is the first to be brought against officers and enlisted men implicated in the activities of Battalion 316.

At least 184 people are still missing and presumed to have been executed by the secret unit, and the present investigation in Honduras is designed to get to the truth of what happened to them.

But yesterday, Carlos Lopez Osorio, the lawyer for the 10 officers accused so far, called the court's inquiry a farce. He said his clients would not appear before a Honduran judge to answer questions about the charges against them.

He said an amnesty decree adopted by the Honduran Congress in 1991, pardoning military officers for abuses, covered their cases.

"It is what Honduran law says," Mr. Lopez said. "Because the accused have been granted an amnesty, they do not have to answer for these crimes before a court.

"It does not matter whether they are innocent or guilty," he added. "They have amnesty."

The accused officers are active and retired. They include Col. Amilcar Zelaya, former member of the military junta that governed Honduras in 1979, and Col. Alexander Hernandez, an alleged former leader of Battalion 316, now a chief official of the police force.

Judge Roy Medina, the judge heading the inquiry, denounced the attempt to defy his order last night.

Speaking in an interview on national television, he said: "The officers who have been called must appear."

The accused were supposed to be questioned Friday.

In an earlier interview, he said the court must decide whether the amnesty applies to the accused military officers.

"The truth is the main goal of this trial," he said. "I want to know what happened to the victims and who is responsible. Then I will resolve the issue of amnesty."

Yesterday's developments occurred against a backdrop of increasing tension in Tegucigalpa over the confrontation with the military.

Nearly two weeks ago, a group of men sped to a stop in front of Judge Medina's courthouse and began firing shots at the building.

"Where is that [expletive] Medina," the men yelled. "Tell him to come out so we can kill him." Guards returned fire as the car sped away.

Despite earlier death threats, Judge Medina had refused a bodyguard. But since that attack, he changed his mind because of pressure from his family. "They are worried about me so much that they have begged me to get a bodyguard."

Honduran Supreme Court officials and the police have agreed to post security agents at courthouses across the country and at the homes of Supreme Court magistrates and other judges hearing sensitive cases.

Security also has been strengthened with armed guards at the office of the attorney general investigating the human rights abuses.

"Delinquents hope to intimidate judges so that impugnity continues," said Miguel Angel Rivera, president of the Honduran Supreme Court. "But the threats do not weaken us. They make us stronger."

The Honduran investigation into the human rights abuses of the 1980s intensified this summer after a four-part series in The Sun reported that the CIA and State Department collaborated with Battalion 316.

The articles, which were published in June, disclosed that U.S. ,, officials knew of the abuses, but deliberately misled Congress -- and the public about the Honduran military's activities in order to keep up public support for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.

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.

In a policy shift, the Clinton administration has decided to speed up the process of declassifying documents pertaining to that period and turning them over to Honduran investigators, officials said yesterday.

The Hondurans' demand for the documents is now being viewed as a "government-to-government request" that bypasses lengthy Freedom of Information Act procedures, the State Department said in a statement.

This means Honduran probers could begin receiving a steady flow of declassified documents in about three months, one official said.

"We anticipate that other agencies will work with the State Department to provide similar assistance," a White House official said, indicating that the Central Intelligence Agency would also provide new material to the Hondurans.

Shortly after The Sun's series was published, John M. Deutch, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, ordered the CIA to review the history of its relationship with the Honduran military during the 1980s.

Last month, Mr. Deutch said the review, which is continuing, would provide lessons for the agency on "how not to do things" in the future. A CIA spokesman, Mark Mansfield, has said the review is expected to be completed this fall.

Also last month, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment urging President Clinton to "expeditiously" declassify government documents about the torture and murder of Honduran citizens by Battalion 316 and make those documents available to Honduran authorities investigating the abuses.

The Honduran government has been seeking those records for nearly two years. In December 1993, Leo Valladares, the Honduran government's human rights commissioner, sought records about Battalion 316 from the United States, but U.S. officials responded that the demand was too broad and asked for a more specific request.

In August of this year, Mr. Valladares submitted a more detailed request seeking information about U.S. ties to the late Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who, as chief of the Honduran armed forces, directed the secret intelligence group responsible for the kidnappings, torture and murders of hundreds of alleged subversives.

Mr. Valladares asked for all documents mentioning General Alvarez and Battalion 316, and requested documents about six of Battalion 316's victims.

"This is potentially a million-dollar decision," a senior State Department official said, citing the people required to review the documents. He said they could all be turned over to Honduras within three months.

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