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Bishop Slain in Guatemala

April 27, 1998

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) _ A Roman Catholic bishop was beaten to death in Guatemala two days after presenting a scathing report on human rights violations during the country’s 36-year civil war.

An attacker killed Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera by smashing his head with a concrete block in the garage of his Guatemala City home on Sunday night, church officials said today.

The 75-year-old priest’s body lay in a pool of blood on the floor, and bloody tracks suggested the assailant dragged him across the garage. Church officials said the bishop apparently heard a noise in the garage and went to investigate.

Prosecutors said they have not determined a motive in the killing.

Gerardi was head of the Guatemala City archdiocese’s human rights office. A lay worker who helped Gerardi in the three-year human rights probe said the timing of his killing was suspicious.

``We can’t come to a conclusion yet,″ said Edgar Gutierrez, the head staffer on the report ``Never Again in Guatemala,″ which Gerardi presented at the Guatemala City cathedral Friday.

But Gutierrez said ``we can’t ignore″ the fact that the report _ which blamed the Guatemalan army and civilian paramilitary groups it created for nearly 80 percent of rights abuses in the civil war _ had just been released.

Jean Arnault, director of U.N. mission for Guatemala, called the killing ``a violent contrast, given that Gerardi was a man who played a role in the peace process.″

In one of Latin America’s longest civil conflicts, leftist rebels fought the often repressive Guatemalan government, demanding land reform and greater democracy. A peace accord was signed in 1996.

Gerardi is the first bishop slain in Guatemala, and his death is the first killing of such a high-ranking church member in Central America since the peace accords.

Attorney General Hugo Perez Aguilera called the crime ``a vile murder,″ and said a police artist has drawn up a sketch of the male suspect from witnesses’ descriptions.

Church officials said they would lay out Gerardi’s body at the Guatemala City cathedral for three days before burying him.

In Rome, the Vatican said it received confirmation of Gerardi’s slaying.

The bishop ``was one of the most strenuous defenders of human rights during the bloody civil war that for 36 years had afflicted″ Guatemala, said L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper, in a report today on the slaying.

It said Pope John Paul II had met several times with the bishop during the pope’s 1996 visit to Guatemala.

During the 1980s, Gerardi served as bishop of Guatemala’s heavily Indian Quiche province, the scene of much of the fighting and many of the human rights abuses he described in Friday’d report.

Gerardi lived abroad in exile for part of the 1980s, when the government of Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia prevented him from re-entering the country after a trip.

The report issued Friday, based on 6,000 interviews with survivors, blamed the army and so-called civilian self defense patrols for about 80 percent of the 150,000 deaths and 50,000 disappearances in the civil war, which lasted from 1961 to 1996. Leftist rebels were blamed in the document for about 9 percent of the deaths.

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