TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- They came together for a moment of rare exultation last week -- mostly women widowed in the darkest days of the Honduran military's war against its own people a decade ago.
In a restaurant banquet room, they changed the shawls of mourning for cocktail dresses and cosmetics that made them seem to glow in the candlelight. They raised champagne glasses instead of protest posters. Women in their 60s twirled teen-age granddaughters on the dance floor.
The men of their lives could not be there. They disappeared a decade ago and are presumed dead, the victims of Battalion 316, a CIA-trained Honduran military unit that kidnapped, tortured and killed those suspected of leftism in the 1980s.
The cause for celebration at the restaurant was a triumph for the dead. A unanimous decision two weeks ago by the Honduran Supreme Court to allow prosecution of the military in civilian courts brought this country a large step closer to being the sort of place where what happened to them would not happen again.
For a country that embodied the Latin American tradition of military impunity, the high court's decision represented a sea change.
For the surviving relatives of those murdered by Battalion 316, the decision is the biggest victory in a long struggle to find the truth and punish the culprits.
"See how much life one small ray of light has injected into us," beamed Bertha Oliva, director of the Committee for the Relatives of the Disappeared, as she got up to go to the dance floor at the party at the El Corral restaurant.
Her husband, a teacher and union organizer, disappeared in 1981 and is presumed to be among those executed and buried in secret graves by Battalion 316.
Specifically, the Honduran Supreme Court ruled Jan. 18 that a 1991 amnesty does not prevent the prosecution of nine military officers charged with kidnapping and torturing six university students in 1982. Arrest warrants were issued last year for three of the nine suspects: Col. Alexander Hernandez, Maj. Manuel Trejo Rosas and Capt. Billy Joya Almendola.
The three have eluded prosecutors for months while the military's lawyers argued that the 1991 amnesty for political crimes prevented their prosecution. Colonel Hernandez, suspected as a former commander of Battalion 316, and Major Trejo also are charged with murdering Nelson Mackay, a government lawyer kidnapped in 1982. His remains were exhumed from an unmarked grave in 1994.
Those cases are considered the first of what may be dozens of prosecutions for human rights abuses committed by the military in the 1980s, when this impoverished country was the staging ground for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.
The high court decision was an extraordinary departure from the past, when the judiciary was cowed by the military along with the rest of the country. The issue was clear to the judges, according to Judge Blanca Valladares, chief author of the amnesty ruling.
"This is a firm step toward a goal that we have been seeking for many years, equal protection under the law," she said. "This shows that everyone must respect the law and that those who do not will be punished no matter what their position in society."
But it was not an easy task.
Judge Valladares, the court's youngest member and its only woman, said that when she and her eight colleague's convened in closed chambers to examine the amnesty issue, the weight of the decision was apparent on all their faces and in all their voices.
"I looked around the table and I saw complete tension," she recalled. "One of the judge's hands were shaking as he held documents. Another's voice went up and down when he spoke."
Yet, only one of the nine judges argued against the ruling to allow prosecution.
Important as the Supreme Court was, other forces have worked to make the tide change against the military. They have been vindicated and energized by the court ruling.
* The Honduran attorney general's office is pressing ahead with the prosecutions.
Human rights prosecutor Ricardo Pineda said he plans to travel soon to Canada to interview former members of Battalion 316 who fled Honduras with the help of human rights groups in return for their cooperation.
* Union leaders, student organizations and church leaders have been forceful in demanding prosecutions.
Last week, the Episcopal Conference of Honduras denounced the violence of the 1980s and urged the military to cooperate with the human rights trials.
"To have national reconciliation, the crimes must be investigated and those responsible must be judged," said Bishop Luis Alfonso Santos, secretary of the group. "We ask those responsible for the disappearances to come forward and repent their crimes, help find the bodies of those that they murdered and ask for forgiveness from the relatives of the disappeared."
* The U.S. government is declassifying documents pertaining to the 1980s. Leo Valladares, the Honduran government human rights commissioner, said the Supreme Court decision should energize that process.
"The documents are important now more than ever," Mr. Valladares said. "Now that the trials against former members of Battalion 316 are going forward, we can make good use of any information that is given to us."
Last week, a State Department official said that thousands of pages of documents in the process of being declassified would be turned over to Honduran investigators this spring.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who co-sponsored an amendment last year urging the White House to speed up the declassification process, said the U.S. government should move quickly.
"This courageous decision by the Honduran Supreme Court should be promptly reciprocated by our own government to help expose the truth and break the cycle of impunity that has shielded the Honduran military for so long," Mr. Leahy said.
The Honduran investigation intensified last summer, after The Sun published a four-part series documenting the activities of Battalion 316. The series also documented how the CIA and the State Department collaborated with the Honduran military. Human rights reports to the U.S. Congress concealed the extent of abuses by the Honduran military.
The case against the military also has been advanced by the discovery of secret graves containing the mangled corpses of Battalion 316's victims, beginning with the exhumation of a grave containing six bodies in May 1994.
Mr. Pineda, the human rights prosecutor, said last week that he is preparing to file additional murder charges against military officials as a result of exhumations in October that uncovered zTC the remains of two people who disappeared in the 1980s.
One of those whose remains were found is Gustavo Morales, the former lottery worker who was kidnapped by Battalion 316 in 1984. The other was Hans Madison, a 24-year-old university student who disappeared in July 1982.
In the dark days, the people who found such bodies and buried them did not come forward. Even recently, human rights investigators and judges have received death threats.
Lately, though, it is the military that is hiding. Human rights advocates, judges and lawyers investigating the crimes of Battalion 316 said that over the past few weeks, the death threats have stopped.
"We do not take lightly that we are prosecuting people who are very accustomed to killing," said Mr. Pineda. "And there may be some individuals who act violently. But we do not expect an institutional campaign of violence. We feel those days are over."
That was the cry of the relatives of the disappeared as they partied at the restaurant near the dilapidated center of Tegucigalpa last week. Finally, they said, they have triumphed. All the years of marching before the Honduran Congress, at the presidential offices and outside military installations have paid off.
"I, of course, want to see my husband's killers convicted," said Rina Morales, widow of the lottery worker. "But even if they do not catch his killers, I will be happy to see them catch any of the men who were responsible for these disappearances.
"A victory for one family will be a victory for all of us."