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President Praises Court Ruling to Block First Trial of Honduran Military

January 7, 1996

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) _ President Carlos Roberto Reina praised a judge’s decision to block the first civilian trial of Honduras’ military, saying Saturday that the ruling would foster national reconciliation.

But human rights groups denounced Friday’s ruling that three soldiers accused of torturing six university students in 1982 are immune from prosecution under amnesty laws.

The case now goes to Honduras’ highest court, the Supreme Court of Justice, which is expected to issue a final decision within two weeks.

``The decision of the tribunal came just as my government is seeking reconciliation with the Honduran people,″ Reina said. The court ``acted correctly.″

The action also dealt a blow to survivors of paramilitary death squads who are demanding trials of those responsible for assassinating hundreds of suspected leftists.

``We are disappointed with Honduran justice, which favors the military,″ said Bertha de Olvia, head of the Committee of Relatives of Disappeared People. ``We want justice for our dead loved ones.″

There was no immediate reaction Saturday from Honduras’ powerful military.

Calls went unreturned Saturday to Attorney General Edmundo Orellana, whose office filed charges against the three officers last year, and Judge Roy Edmundo Medina, who issued warrants for their arrest.

By a 2-1 vote, the First Appeals Court ruled that amnesty laws _ passed to ease internal strife following the government’s war on suspected rebels _ also precluded the prosecution of the 10 soldiers and officers in connection with the attempted murders.

``The amnesty is general and includes both civilians and military personnel involved in the case,″ said Judge Israel Turcios Rodriguez, who joined Judge Armando Echenique in making the majority decision. ``This is not a conditional amnesty.″

The dissenting judge, Hector Fortin Pavon, said he made his decision ``after an exhaustive analysis of the case″ but issued no opinion about the votes of his two other colleagues.

The trial would have been the first civilian prosecution of military officers in Honduras.

Reina and the armed forces have defended the amnesty, saying trials would divide the nation. More than 1,500 exiles returned to Honduras after the amnesty laws were enacted in 1987, 1990, and 1991.

Authorities have so far indicted 16 of 100 military officers linked in a government report to the infamous Battalion 316 death squad, which persecuted leftists suspected of collaborating with Honduran and other Central American guerrillas.

In the case before the court, the soldiers, alleged members of the battalion, arrested the suspected rebel sympathizers and allegedly tortured them for 20 days.

In the 1980s, the U.S. government sent $500 million to the Honduran military, when the nation became the operations center for U.S. efforts to wipe out support for Central American rebels.

Honduras itself saw the least action by death squads of any Central American nation, with hundreds of reported victims compared to thousands as in other countries.

A 1995 report by the Honduran government found that U.S., Nicaraguan, and Argentine advisers, as well as hundreds of Honduran soldiers and officers, collaborated with Battalion 316, blamed for kidnapping and murdering 184 suspected leftists.

Military dictators ruled Honduras from 1963 to 1981, and the military continues influencing the nation’s economy and politics, now behind the scenes.

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