In a major victory for human rights prosecutors investigating abuses of a CIA-trained military unit that abducted, tortured and executed suspected subversives in the 1980s, the Supreme Court of Honduras has ruled that members of the military accused of rights abuses may be tried in civil courts.
The court's 9-0 ruling also ordered the military to turn over three senior officers who have been in hiding since warrants for their arrest were issued last year. One of those men is Col. Alexander Hernandez, a suspected former leader of Battalion 316, the unit trained by the CIA.
The Honduran government's human rights commissioner, Leo Valladares, said yesterday he believed the high court ruling also would help push ahead the declassification of U.S. government documents pertaining to the relationship between Battalion 316 and the U.S. government at a time when Honduras was the staging ground for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Latin America.
The ruling "strengthens our campaign to win the declassification of documents in the United States. With the courts continuing to pursue the truth, it will put more pressure on the Honduran army and the U.S. government to give more information on the events of the 1980s," said Mr. Valladares.
The court decision, which was announced late Thursday night, represented another setback for the military that ruled Honduras with impunity for decades. It also directly contradicted the position of Honduran President Carlos Roberto Reina, who had said late last year that the military should be covered by a 1991 amnesty for political crimes.
The decision was issued about midnight Thursday after 12 hours of intense debate. According to one justice, the debate reflected the fears that have enabled the military to act with impunity for so many years, but it also reflected the determination to get at the truth and obtain justice.
Blanca Valladares, one of the nine magistrates, said in an interview yesterday that at first, some of her colleagues expressed fear that a ruling against the military would arouse the military to take action. Others, she said, argued that the best guarantee for peace would be to give the military amnesty and forget about the past.
"It was not an easy decision," said Mrs. Valladares, who is not related to the human rights commissioner. "I felt strongly that the decision had to be made unanimously and not by majority. If it was not unanimous, then the military could say that it was not a firm decision and that it should not stand."
"This is an historic decision," said Mr. Valladares, the human rights commissioner. "Despite all the opinions in favor of the amnesty, the court has stood for what is fair and just."
Specifically, the court's five-page ruling ordered Judge Roy Medina, of the First Criminal Court of Letters, to continue his investigation into charges filed last summer against nine officers suspected of abducting and torturing six university students in April 1982.
The nine suspects are all believed to be former members and leaders of Battalion 316. More than 180 of Battalion 316's victims are still missing and presumed dead.
The court also ordered Honduran military leaders to turn over three suspects whose arrests were ordered last year. In addition to Colonel Hernandez, the suspected former leader of Battalion 316, the others are retired Maj. Manuel de Jesus Trejo and retired Capt. Billy Joya Almendola. They have been in hiding since their arrest was ordered by Judge Medina.
While the Supreme Court ruling allows the cases against the officers to go forward, it does not rule out the possibility that the amnesty issue could rise again. Under the Supreme Court ruling, if the suspects are found guilty, the trial judge has the power to decide whether the amnesty covers the crime.
Neither President Reina nor Honduran Armed Forces Chief Gen. Luis Alonso Discua issued statements yesterday.
But after hearing of the decision by the Supreme Court, human rights activists were jubilant.
Shouts and screams could be heard coming from the office of the Committee for the Relatives of the Disappeared, which has worked for more than a decade to get information on Battalion 316 and pushed for punishment for Battalion members.
"For the first time in 12 years, no one feels the need to work," said Bertha Oliva, director of the relatives committee. "We can stop shouting for justice and today we just shout for joy." Ms. Oliva's husband, a suspected subversive named Tomas Nativi, was kidnapped by Battalion 316 in June 1981 and has not been seen since.
Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde, a leader of the Christian Democratic Party whose brother was killed by military officers in 1988, said, "This is a significant positive step for the Honduran people. Despite the pressure of the current president to give amnesty to the military, the people of Honduras have said no, time and time again. They are no longer willing to endure impunity."
The Honduran investigation into the human rights abuses of the 1980s intensified last summer after a four-part series in The Sun reported that the CIA and the U.S. State Department collaborated with Battalion 316.
The articles, published last June, disclosed that U.S. officials knew of the abuses, but deliberately misled Congress and the TTC public about the Honduran military's activities to keep up public support for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.
The Supreme Court decision in Honduras also was hailed as a landmark by human rights advocates in the United States.
"It is a courageous act of judicial independence and could signify a long step toward finally breaking from the bloody past," said Douglass Cassel, executive director of the International Human Rights Law Institute of DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. "The fact that the Supreme Court stood up to the president and the military and said that the old amnesty law does not shield these military personnel from prosecution is by itself a historic vindication of the rule of law."
Carlos Salinas, a Latin American advocate for Amnesty International USA, agreed.
"We hope that the prosecutions can go ahead and in this way Honduran society can finally begin to heal," he said.