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New Guatemalan Commission To Investigate Human Rights Abuses

May 26, 1986

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) _ Guatemala’s new civilian government is setting up a congressional commission to investigate human rights abuses, hoping to clear a severely tarnished image gained during years of military rule and influence.

″The situation is changing; we will never again see blood in the streets,″ said Jorge Luis Archila, the head of the congressional commission.

″Now there is pressure to do something about it. It was such an embarrassment for us.″

The mandate for the commission was outlined in the constitution drawn up last year and enacted in January with the inauguaration of President Vinicio Cerezo, a civilian.

In taking office, the Christian Democrat Cerezo ended three decades of rule by conservative military or military-dtominated governments.

During those years, Guatemala, Central America’s largest nation with 8 million people, was widely assailed because of human rights violations laid primarily on the government, paramilitary organizations or related rightist death squads.

In 1977 the military government turned down U.S. military aid rather than submit to human rights conditions attached by the administration of President Jimmy Carter. By 1981 the monthly average of killings was more than 300.

The government commission marks a new initiative to clean up that reputation.

Cerezo has said, however, it is not his role to prosecute the military, which retains a powerful role.

About 100,000 people have been killed in three decades of fighting between rightist governments and leftist guerrillas. About 38,000 people are still listed as missing.

Tens of thousands more have fled the nation, 46,000 of them - mostly Indian peasants from the rugged northwestern highlands - to refugee camps in southern Mexico.

The violations, by all accounts, are subsiding. Yet newspapers still report almost daily about scattered kidnappings, murders, tortures.

According to the constitution, the commission is made up of congressmen from each of the nine political parties. They in turn soon will give to the full Congress three names, one of which will be picked as an ombudsman.

The ombudsman, when picked, will have the responsibility to investigate human rights violations.

″He will be a lawyer for the people,″ commission head Archila said in an interview. ″He will have to be politically independent, act seriously, and not be afraid.″

Until the ombudsman is selected, Archila has been handling reports coming to his office.

During the interview, he read a complaint from a prisoner who said he was not released from prison although he was due for release according to the law.

″This isn’t fair,″ Archila said, calling to his secretary and having her type a letter to the Supreme Court to handle the case.

″The court gets back to us immediately, or we go to the press,″ he said.

Archila said his office has been slow getting started and has received only a few complaints ″because the people don’t know about us.″ The majority of the letters received have been about abuses attributed tro civil defense patrols.

″They say they are being threatened and are afraid to go to the defense minister, so we go to the defense minister,″ he said.

Besides informing the population that his office exists, Archila said, the commission will have to educate the people as to what constitutes a human rights abuse.

″We can’t defend someone taken from his house because he didn’t pay his bills.″

But charges of abuses come from all sides.

Guerrillas force peasants, mostly Indians of Mayan descent, to aid the leftist cause. Civilian defense patrols batter villagers. Security forces illegally detain citizens. All sides resort to occasional torture.

The army has drawn back from its ″scorched earth″ tactics that reached their height in the 1982-1983 administration of Gen. Efrain Rios Montt. The idea was to sweep the guerrilla areas, destroy crops, chase the peasants to remove any potential rebel support bases, and kill insurgents.

″There still are violations,″ Archila said. ″But it is getting better.″

The U.S. State Department, in a report released earlier this year, said Guatemala’s human rights situation was improving. It said 597 people were killed for political reasons or in combat during 1985, down from the 992 a year earlier.

Last year the United States granted $455,000 in military aid to Guatemala, the first time since 1977. The Reagan administration has requested $5.3 million for this year.

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