Gerardi Trial to Hear From More Witnesses

Guatemala Trial Extended a Month

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GUATEMALA CITY, MAY 30, 2001 ( The court handling the Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi murder case decided today to accept more witnesses, extending the trial for another month.

According to Judge Eduardo Cojulum, the Third Court of Sentencing has agreed to hear the testimony of three new witnesses, and to visit some places mentioned in the trial.

On Tuesday at the Vatican, John Paul II met with visiting Guatemalan bishops and asked that the “truth be uncovered” on this and other “execrable crimes,” of which the Church has been victim. Auxiliary Bishop Gerardi, a human-rights defender, was beaten to death with a concrete block on April 26, 1998, in his parish house.

The five charged in the murder are retired Colonel Disrael Lima Estrada; his son, Captain Byron Lima Oliva; arms expert Obdulio Villanueva, connected to the army; Father Mario Orantes, the deceased bishop´s assistant; and parish cook Margarita López.

During the court hearings, which began in March, the office of the public prosecutor, headed by Leopoldo Zeissig, said Lima Estrada may have killed Bishop Gerardi for revenge.

A report by the bishop singled out Lima Estrada and other military men with human-rights abuses during the nation´s 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

The public prosecutor said others participated in the murder along with the five accused. “We believe that there are individuals implicated in the high spheres of power, but we do not have proofs to bring them to trial,” Zeissig said in March.

“What is being sought with the new means of evidence is to extend the accusation,” said Mynor Melgar, who works in the Guatemala Archdiocese´s Human Rights Office, which was directed by Bishop Gerardi until his death.

The court will visit a prison located 51 kilometers (31 miles) from the capital, where Villanueva was imprisoned. According to witnesses, the prison director allowed Villanueva to leave the night of the murder. The brother of a witness who says he saw Villanueva leave the prison will be questioned.

Villanueva was a bodyguard of President Alfonso Portillo. He was imprisoned for the death of a milkman, whom presidential security guards killed in a confusing incident.

The hearings will begin again Friday and continue for three weeks, said Judge Cojulum. A court decision is expected in late June.

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