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Priest Charged Again in Bishop Death

March 11, 2000

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) _ After nearly two years of investigation, Guatemalan authorities on Friday again charged a Roman Catholic priest in the death of Bishop Juan Gerardi, a human rights leader.

Prosecutors had been looking into whether the military was involved, but the re-arrest of the Rev. Mario Orantes, Gerardi’s former assistant, suggests they have shifted their attention back toward suspects in the church.

Gerardi, 75, was bludgeoned to death on April 26, 1998, in the garage of the northern Guatemala City seminary where he and Orantes lived and worked.

Gerardi was killed just two days after he had delivered the Catholic Church’s human rights report, which implicated Guatemala’s military in an overwhelming majority of the 200,000 deaths resulting from the country’s 36-year civil war.

Orantes originally spent seven months in jail on murder charges, but was released in February 1999, when human rights groups began protesting that authorities were overlooking the military’s potential role in the killing.

Though never officially cleared of wrongdoing, Orantes was allowed to travel to Houston to seek medical treatment for an undisclosed nervous system problem and escape reported death threats.

Last month, Judge Flor de Maria Garcia summoned him back to Guatemala City, where he has remained hospitalized, with his lawyer insisting he is too sick to be taken into custody for questioning.

The new charges against Orantes come a week after the judge freed another suspect in the case, Jose Obdulio, a former presidential guard with reputed military ties. The judge said Monday that there was not enough evidence to hold Obdulio.

Also in custody in connection with the murder are church cook Margarita Lopez, Sgt. Byron Lima and his father, retired Col. Disrael Lima.

Thus far, Lopez and Orantes are the only suspects to face formal charges.

Update hourly