Honduran President Carlos Roberto Reina, who ran for office as a champion of human rights, said yesterday that he favors amnesty for military officers suspected of kidnapping, torturing and killing Honduran citizens during the 1980s.
Interviewed by reporters after opening a water treatment system in a slum outside the capital, Tegucigalpa, Mr. Reina was asked yesterday whether he believed a 1991 amnesty for political crimes committed during the 1980s covers military officials responsible for abuses.
Mr. Reina responded: "I have heard all the opinions. One of the most sensible says that [the amnesty] includes everything from that time, a forgetting of the events. That is to say that it includes civilians and military officials. And I believe that is correct."
The president's statement was immediately denounced by Honduran human rights advocates, including members of his own administration who have been working to prosecute military men suspected of abuses in the 1980s, when Honduras was a staging ground for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.
Leo Valladares, the government's commissioner for human rights, called Mr. Reina's position "a setback for the fight for human rights."
"It appears that he is inclined to stop the investigations into the truth about the violence of the 1980s and that he will allow the murderers to enjoy impunity," he said in a telephone interview. "It would have been better for him to stay silent on the issue because his statement imposes on the independence of the courts."
Mr. Valladares said he feared Mr. Reina's position would diminish the Clinton administration's incentive to turn over U.S. government documents covering the period, as it has promised to do to help the Honduran investigation.
"Why should the U.S. government rush to declassify documents when the president of Honduras is indicating that he wants all the violence to be forgotten?" Mr. Valladares said. "The U.S. government would like to keep the documents secret because they want to keep their involvement in the abuses secret."
So far, the Honduran attorney general's office has filed charges against 15 former and present members of the military who allegedly kidnapped and tortured suspected leftists during the 1980s. The officers are believed to have been members of a CIA-trained military unit known as Battalion 316.
Some 184 people are still missing and presumed dead. They are known as "los desaparecidos," Spanish for "the disappeared."
Deputy Attorney General Rene Velasquez said yesterday that his office "regrets" President Reina's statement. Prosecutors believe that military officials are not covered by the 1991 amnesty because the abuses are not defined as political crimes, but as abuses of power.
Mr. Velasquez said his office will continue to pursue cases against military officers.
"This is not a matter that will be decided by the president," Mr. Velasquez said. "This will be decided in the courts. And it is our belief that the courts will study the amnesty and they will see that it does not cover the military."
Human rights advocates denounced Mr. Reina's position on amnesty for the military.
"This is the president's way of sending orders to the courts," said Berta Oliva, director of the Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH). "What judge in this country is going to want to go against the will of the president?"
Ms. Oliva recalled that when Mr. Reina was running for office, he promised that his presidency would be a "Golden Age" for the defense of human rights, in which those guilty of abuses would be prosecuted and punished.
"We do not know this man whom we elected president," said Ms. Oliva. "He promised to be the defender of truth and human rights. But all that he defends are criminals and impunity."
The question of whether the amnesty covers the military is being considered by Judge Roy Medina, who is overseeing a case in which nine current and retired military officers have been charged with kidnapping and torturing six university students in 1982.
Judge Medina has said that he will investigate the charges against the officers, determine whether they are guilty and then decide whether they are covered by the amnesty.
The defense attorney for the officers insists, however, that the trial is illegal because his clients are covered by the amnesty. The attorney, Carlos Lopez Osorio, has filed a motion before the Court of Appeals to demand that Judge Medina grant his clients immediate amnesty and stop the investigation into the charges against them.
Human rights advocates fear amnesty would cripple efforts to investigate what occurred during the 1980s.
"The relatives of those who were killed should be able to learn the truth about what happened," said Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde, a leader of the Christian Democratic Party. "The bodies of all those who disappeared must be found and returned to their families.
"Those responsible for the violence should be identified and, at the very least, if they are not sent to jail, then they should be forced out of the military."
He added, "The problem is that many of the men who control the armed forces today were involved with Battalion 316. How can we let our army be controlled by psychopathic killers?"
Ms. Oliva said that if the Honduran courts grant amnesty to the military, COFADEH would press charges against the Honduran government before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the judicial arm of the Organization of American States.
In a landmark ruling in 1988, the Inter-American Court held the government of Honduras liable for the disappearance of Manfredo Velasquez, a graduate student, teacher and political activist. The court ordered the Honduran government to pay compensation to Mr. Velasquez's family.
Mr. Velasquez, then 35, was abducted by Battalion 316 on Sept. 12, 1981, and has not been seen since. He is presumed dead.
In its ruling, the court held that Honduras was responsible for a "systematic" pattern of disappearances between 1981 and 1984. was the first time that a Latin American government officially had been held responsible for abductions and killings committed by a military death squad.
In a case decided in 1989, the Inter-American Court held the Honduran government responsible for the disappearance of teacher Saul Godinez and ordered it to pay compensation to Mr. Godinez's family. Mr. Godinez, then 32 and an elementary school teacher, was abducted on July 22, 1982, by Honduran military officials as he rode his motorcycle to school. He has not been hTC seen since and is presumed dead.
The Honduran investigation into the 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.