A Honduran judge yesterday declared there is enough evidence to prosecute four military officers accused of kidnapping and torturing six university students in the 1980s.
Judge Roy Medina issued arrest warrants for three of the four, who are fugitives from earlier warrants for questioning in the case. The fourth is in prison on unrelated drug trafficking charges.
One of those named in yesterday's action by the judge is Col. Alexander Hernandez. He is suspected of being the former commander of a CIA-trained military unit known as Battalion 316, whose members abducted, tortured and murdered suspected leftists in the 1980s.
Some 184 people are still missing and are believed to be buried in secret graves across the country.
For several months, Judge Medina has been investigating charges brought against Colonel Hernandez and three other officers by the human rights section of the Honduran Attorney General's Office.
That investigation intensified in June after The Sun published a four-part series on Battalion 316's activities and the complicity of the CIA and the U.S. State Department while Honduras was the staging ground for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.
Judge Medina's action yesterday is the latest in a series of unprecedented advances in an effort by the Honduran government to punish military officers who participated in human rights abuses.
"This is a very important decision," said Ricardo Pineda, a human rights prosecutor in the attorney general's office. "It means that we have convinced the judge that our case against the officers is sound. He sees we have strong evidence to show that they were responsible for these abuses."
In the Honduras justice system, a judge acts much as a grand jury does in the United States in deciding whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a suspect to trial.
In addition to Colonel Hernandez, the officers listed in Judge Medina's indictment yesterday were: Lt. Col. Juan Blas Salazar, the former director of the National Department of Investigations, who is in jail on drug charges; Maj. Manuel Trejo, former chief of the Honduran police; and retired Capt. Billy Joya, who operates a security agency in the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula.
Two months ago, Judge Medina ordered the arrest of Colonel Hernandez, Mr. Joya and Major Trejo after they refused to answer questions about the charges against them. The suspects have eluded police since then.
The men are accused of kidnapping and torturing six university students in 1982. Some of the students were leaders of leftist groups that organized peaceful demonstrations to protest everything from tuition increases to the presence of U.S. troops in Honduras.
Five other current and retired military officers have also been accused in the kidnapping and torture of the students. So far, Judge Medina has taken no action on the charges against those men, who include Col. Amilcar Zelaya, a former member of the military junta that ruled Honduras in 1981.
In an interview this week, the lawyer representing the accused military officers said he did not know the whereabouts of the three suspects who are in hiding. But he said the men would not turn themselves in because the trial against them is unfair.
Attorney Carlos Lopez Osorio argues that his clients are covered by a 1991 amnesty law that pardoned political crimes committed during the 1980s.
"My clients do not have to surrender because this whole trial is a farce," Mr. Lopez said. "The Honduran Constitution says that no military officer can be forced to obey an order that is illegal. To us, Judge Medina's arrest orders are illegal."
Still, Judge Medina said he will press ahead with the case even though the accused are fugitives.
"My work is not paralyzed," he said in an interview. "I will keep moving forward."
Colonel Hernandez also is facing charges in another case.
Last week, the attorney general's office said it was prepared to charge him with the 1982 murder of Nelson Mackay Chavarria, a government lawyer.
Yesterday, prosecutor Pineda said his office decided not to present the accusations until the Honduran courts decided whether the 1991 amnesty covers military officials guilty of abuses during the 1980s.
"The evidence in this case is very strong and we are very confident," said Reina Rivera, the lead prosecutor in the Mackay murder case. "We just want to make sure that the charges are not dismissed by the courts giving amnesty to the accused."
The disappearance of Mackay was also detailed in June in The Sun. Mackay's remains were found a year ago in a secret grave near the Honduras-El Salvador border. He is the first of the 184 missing victims to be found and identified.
The articles published by The Sun disclosed that U.S. officials knew of the abuses by the military, but misled Congress and the public about the Honduran military's activities in order to keep up public support for the war against communism in Central America.
The collaboration and deception were revealed in previously declassified documents and in interviews with U.S. and Honduran participants. Those interviewed included three former Battalion 316 torturers who described their roles and the battalion's close relationship with the CIA.
In June, John M. Deutch, the director of the central intelligence,A ordered the CIA to review the history of its relationship with the Honduran military during the 1980s.
That review is expected to be completed this month.