TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- The most talked about issue on this country's popular Radio America call-in show these days is the investigation of 10 military officers accused of human rights abuses during the 1980s, when a CIA-trained military unit called Battalion 316 was kidnapping, torturing and murdering suspected subversives.
Carlos Lopez Osorio, lead attorney for the accused officers, calls in. "My clients should be pardoned!" he insists, invoking a 1991 amnesty decree that pardons political crimes. "This whole trial is illegal!"
Relatives of the battalion's victims call in. They demand that the military not be pardoned.
"They must never have amnesty," says Fidelina Perez, whose son Samuel disappeared and is considered a victim of Battalion 316. "They never gave amnesty to the people they held prisoner in their clandestine jails."
The case has reached a critical juncture. The debate is intense. The divisions are as deep and as passionate as they were more than a decade ago when this impoverished Central American country was the staging ground for the Reagan administration's clandestine war against communism in the region.
Honduras seems closer than it or most Latin American countries have ever been to unmasking and punishing military men responsible for torturing and killing their own countrymen, closer to finding out what happened to 184 people still listed as "disappeared." Closer, too, to uncovering the details of the U.S. government's complicity in those crimes.
But at the same time, the Honduran government appears closer to closing the case against 10 officers already accused. The move would effectively end any chance to prosecute other military officers accused of human rights abuses during the so-called "dark decade" of the 1980s.
That could happen if the attorney Mr. Lopez wins his argument that the 1991 amnesty covers the military as well as suspected subversives.
"I feel that the government is positioning itself to give the officers amnesty," said Bertha Oliva, spokeswoman for the Committee for the Relatives of the Disappeared.
"If that happens, the search for the truth will be over. Why go on exhuming bodies and looking for evidence if military officials win amnesty?"
Ms. Oliva, whose husband, Thomas Nativi, disappeared at the hands of Battalion 316 in 1981, added: "For many people, an amnesty will send the message that nothing has changed. There will always be impunity for those in power."
Mr. Lopez is waging a battle against Honduran Judge Roy Medina, who wants the 10 men to answer questions about their roles in the kidnapping and torture of six university students in 1981.
Judge Medina had given the men until last Friday to appear, but the summons was extended until later this week.
The case against the 10 is only the first in what is supposed to be a full-blown investigation of human rights abuses committed by Battalion 316.
The 10 present and former Honduran military men accused in the current case include Col. Amilcar Zelaya, a former member of the military junta that governed Honduras in 1979, and Col. Alexander Hernandez, a high-level official in the Honduran police force alleged to have been the commander of Battalion 316.
'Amnesty does not apply'
Deputy Attorney General Rene Velasquez, who was illegally detained and tortured by the Honduran military during the 1980s, said the 1991 amnesty decree should be applied only to those who committed politically motivated crimes against the state, not military personnel acting on behalf of the state.
"The amnesty does not apply to them," he said.
But Mr. Velasquez conceded that if this case fails and the officers are granted amnesty, it is unlikely that other cases will be pursued.
The action against the officers began one month after The Sun published a four-part series reporting that the CIA and the State Department collaborated with Battalion 316.
The series revealed that U.S. officials knew of the battalion's abuses but deliberately misled the Congress about the violence to maintain public support for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.
U.S. documents sought
The Honduran government has asked the Clinton administration declassify more documents about the relationship, and the administration promised last week to speed up the process.
But Leo Valladares, the Honduran government's human rights commissioner leading the campaign to get those documents, says that if the case in Honduras stalls or fails, that could reduce Washington's incentive to cooperate.
"If the pressure to get at the truth diminishes in Honduras, then surely that will be a relief to the U.S. government," he said.
The Honduran military has made it clear that it would like nothing better.
The accused soldiers' attorney has told Judge Medina that his clients don't have to answer questions.
And the military's weekly television program has been fulminating against the probe. "There is a small minority of people in this country that want us to forget about those who trained in Cuba and then came back and brought fear and terror to Honduras," says an editorial on the military program, while images of bloody bodies flash on the screen.
Public opinion divided
Opinions among people in Honduras about the amnesty are split almost along the same lines that divided this country during the violent 1980s.
Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde, a Christian Democratic leader whose brother was killed by members of Battalion 316 in 1988, said the accused officers should not receive amnesty until their responsibility in tortures and murders is determined.
"I do not care so much about a formal punishment," he said. "For them, the worst punishment would be for their wives, their
children and their parents to know that they are a bunch of assassins, and that they are not men of honor as they are known now in Honduras."
Widow attacks investigation
While the accused soldiers have not spoken publicly, the widow of the man who organized Battalion 316 has denounced the investigation as hypocritical.
Mrs. Lilia Alvarez, widow of former Honduran army chief Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, said that if the 1991 amnesty applied to subversives who planted bombs, robbed banks and kidnapped wealthy businessmen, then military officers who acted against the subversives should also benefit from the amnesty.
"For those who committed acts of terrorism, there is forgiveness," she said.
"But for the men who saved this country from communism, there is nothing but accusations and anger."
Judge Medina said he will be the one to decide whether the 1991 amnesty applies to the accused military officers. But he said he can't decide until he has questioned everyone involved.
A life-threatening job
"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."
That has turned into a life-threatening exercise reminiscent of the 1980s.
Two weeks ago, a group of men fired shots at Judge Medina's courthouse from a four-door Mazda sedan that had tinted windows and no license plate, the same sort of vehicle used by Battalion 316 in the 1980s.
Cursing Judge Medina, they reportedly hollered, "Tell him to come out so we can kill him."
Judge Medina says that at night, men ride by his home on motorcycles and wave automatic rifles. He has three bodyguards.
Telephoned death threats to him and others engaged in the investigation are commonplace.
"I will not be intimidated by anyone," said Judge Medina, a tall, forceful man.
"I am a judge, and I have a responsibility to look for the truth and obey the law."