A suspected former leader of a CIA-trained Honduran army unit that tortured and killed civilians will be charged today with the 1982 murder of a government lawyer, a Honduran prosecutor said yesterday.
The indictment of Col. Alexander Hernandez would be the first murder charge brought against a high-ranking military officer in the 1980s wave of human rights abuses that took place as Battalion 316 waged a clandestine campaign against suspected leftists.
Colonel Hernandez is to be charged in the killing of Nelson Mackay Chavarria, whose disappearance was detailed in June in a four-part series in The Sun.
In another significant development, the chief of the Honduran armed forces testified behind closed doors yesterday before a judge investigating another Battalion 316 case -- the 1982 kidnapping and torture of six university students.
Never before has a Honduran military leader submitted to judicial authority in the investigation of human rights abuses.
Gen. Luis Alonso Discua, the armed forces chief, is the commanding officer of Colonel Hernandez, who is a fugitive. Prosecutors and human rights activists suspect the military is sheltering Colonel Hernandez, who is among nine present and former Honduran military officers already charged in the case of the university students.
Emerging from yesterday's session at General Discua's office, Judge Jorge Alberto Burgos told reporters that the armed forces chief gave no information about Colonel Hernandez's whereabouts.
Judge Burgos called General Discua "very positive" and willing to aid the investigation. But he said the general provided "superficial" and "not very extensive" information in response to 15 to 20 questions. The judge offered no details.
Nelson Mackay Chavarria, the man whose slaying Colonel Hernandez is now sought for, disappeared in February 1982 after going out one morning to buy a Sunday newspaper. He was one of 184 people who disappeared during the 1980s at the hands of Battalion 316. All are presumed dead.
Mr. Mackay was a 37-year-old lawyer suspected of arranging gun sales to a radical student group.
In December 1994, Mr. Mackay's remains were discovered in a clandestine grave near the Salvadoran border. He was the first person on the list of 184 to be found and identified. The discovery of an identifiable body enabled prosecutors to try to bring his killers to justice.
"We believe we have sufficient elements to prove the case," said Ricardo Pineda, a prosecutor in the Honduran attorney general's human rights office. "By bringing these charges, we will have the opportunity to deepen the investigation."
The Honduran investigation into the human rights abuses of the 1980s intensified this summer after The Sun reported that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and State Department collaborated with Battalion 316.
The articles disclosed that U.S. officials knew of the abuses, but deliberately misled Congress and the public about the Honduran military's activities in an effort to keep up public support for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.
In addition to the killing of Mr. Mackay, Colonel Hernandez will be charged with the attempted murder of Miguel Carias, Mr. Pineda said. At the time, Battalion 316 believed Mr. Carias was an accomplice of Mr. Mackay in an arms deal.
Mr. Pineda, the prosecutor, added that retired Maj. Manuel de Jesus Trejo, a former national police official, will be charged in the Mackay and Carias cases. Major Trejo is also a fugitive in the case of the university students.
The lawyer for Colonel Hernandez and Major Trejo has said his clients are immune from prosecution under a 1991 amnesty decree, but government prosecutors say the provision doesn't apply.
Asked if the new charges might complicate the existing cases, ** Mr. Pineda said: "No, but it will complicate the situations of the fugitives. Now they will be charged with murder."
The Mackay investigation was helped by the willingness of Mr. Carias to testify. After he came forward, he was given round-the-clock protection.
Mr. Carias, an architectural draftsman, has said he was held captive with Mr. Mackay for a week in 1982. Mr. Carias said his captors tortured him with electric shocks. But unlike Mr. Mackay, he was released later.
In an interview with The Sun this year, Mr. Carias described his last encounter with Mr. Mackay.
They were together in a brown brick house on the northern edge of Tegucigalpa that Battalion 316 used as a secret jail. Mr. Mackay was held in a bedroom, his hands and feet tied with rope. Mr. Carias, locked in the closet, heard Mr. Mackay praying.
"I never heard or saw Nelson again," Mr. Carias said.