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Judge in trial of Honduran military isn't afraid to die Justice be done: Unlike some of his predecessors, Judge Roy Medina has refused to bow to death threats as he investigates the military's kidnapping and torture of six students.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Every weekday morning a heavily-armed convoy of three trucks moves through the narrow streets of this city from the suburban home of Judge Roy Medina to the criminal courthouse where he investigates the corrupt and brutal past of his country.

The most controversial of the trials is one in which 10 Honduran military officers have been accused of kidnapping and torturing six university students during the 1980s. The officers are all suspected of being former members of a CIA-trained unit known as Battalion 316 that kidnapped, tortured and murdered suspected leftists in the 1980s.

There are many Hondurans who had hoped the truth about Battalion 316 would stay buried forever. Judge Medina began working three months ago to uncover that truth. Now, many are threatening to bury him.

"I have many enemies," the tall judge says in his baritone voice. "I don't feel safe anymore. The attack could come from so many places, from common criminals on trial in my court, from organized mafias or from the Honduran armed forces."

So when Judge Medina leaves the modest, white-washed home where he lives with his wife and three children, he rides in a truck with three armed guards.

In front of the truck taking him to work is a police truck with four men brandishing their weapons. And a third vehicle rides behind the judge with three more armed guards.

At the judge's home and at his courthouse, the bodyguards always are there. On Friday, he went to the Honduran military police firing range to improve his own shooting skills.

Judge Medina, 48, is the central figure in this country's attempt ,, to bring to justice politicians, wealthy businessmen and military officers who have enjoyed almost complete impugnity for decades.

He is overseeing cases that involve corruption charges against former Honduran President Leonardo Callejas; against Cabinet members of the current administration, and drug traffickers.

The trial against the 10 former and present military officers arouses the greatest fears for some and the greatest hope for others. The outcome of that case could determine whether other officers are brought to trial for human rights abuses committed during the 1980s -- especially by members of the CIA-trained Battalion 316.

During what is known here as "The Dark Decade" judges routinely backed down to death threats and ignored pleas for help from relatives of Battalion 316's victims. Judge Medina has refused to be intimidated.

Last week, when three of the 10 accused military officers ignored a summons to appear in his chambers to answer questions. He ordered their arrest. The three have not been found, but the showdown has become a national preoccupation, and Judge Medina shows no sign of backing down.

"He is one of the best judges we have in this country," said Supreme Court Justice Rigoberto Espinal Irias. "He is seriously committed to enforcing the law, no matter who is accused."

Mr. Espinal, a former judge on the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, added, "We are extremely proud of him."

"I understand that for my service to the court, I could lose my

life," Judge Medina says. "And I cannot say that I am not afraid. But I cannot turn away from the truth."

The judge, a devout Roman Catholic and illegitimate son of a doctor he hardly knew, describes his job as a mission for fairness.

"Honduras is a very, very poor country. And yet you can find many people with big bank accounts in Switzerland or who own large houses in the United States," he says. "It is clear that they could not have those things by earning the salary of a government official or a military officer. They are a product of corruption and impugnity."

"It is time," he said, "that they stop enjoying the advantages they have enjoyed for so long."

The judge's character seems rooted in his own past, from an unprivileged childhood to his work as a young adult in poor communities across the country. He was raised by his mother and grandmother. "My grandmother ran a small store, but she could never make any money because she was always giving things away to anyone in need."

Judge Medina tried medical school but quit because he could not work and study at the same time. In 1968, he worked as a teacher in a one-room elementary school just outside his hometown of Danli.

"I had all grade levels in one class," he says, laughing. "The students were in the first through fifth grades. It was one of the toughest jobs I ever had."

Later, he helped manage a government program to build schools in poor, isolated communities. The government provided the raw materials, the communities provided the labor. "We built hundreds of classrooms," he boasts. "It was a very successful time for me. A person grows most when serving others."

In 1972, he decided to go to law school. "I saw that I could help people in very important ways as a lawyer."

After graduating from law school, Judge Medina took a series of government administrative posts. During the 1980s, he watched his country got sucked into the violence of the Cold War.

Students, professors, union leaders and attorneys suspected of subversion were disappearing at the hands of the Honduran military, which was determined to snuff out any hint of communism.

"The courts never took seriously any charges brought to them by victims of the military," he says. "It was shameful."

Determined to help change the conduct of Honduran courts, he became a judge in 1988 in a court in Danli.

He then was named to the court in La Ceiba, a town on Honduras' north coast. Two years ago, he was appointed to Tegucigalpa's 1st Criminal Court of Letters, the equivalent of a city criminal court.

"We appointed him because he had an excellent reputation among the people of La Ceiba and Danli," says Justice Espinal of the Honduran Supreme Court.

Jose Palacios, another Supreme Court justice, said, "At judicial conferences Roy speaks with conviction about the justice system. He stands by the law and does not give in to pressure."

Referring to the trial of the 10 military officers accused of abuses during the 1980s, he said, "There is great tension. But I try to isolate myself from the comments in favor of or against the accused."

The trial began a month after The Sun published a series of stories describing the violence of Battalion 316 and how the CIA and State Department collaborated with the unit.

The Clinton administration recently promised to speed up the declassification of documents Honduras has asked for covering

the connection between the CIA and Battalion 316.

And Judge Medina supports the declassification. Just as Honduras is struggling to find out the details of abuses committed by its officers, he says, so should the United States reveal the misdeeds of its officials.

"The [Honduran] military was enforcing a policy of national security. And that policy was established by the CIA," he says. "They share the responsibility for the violence and must also be held accountable."

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