Threats Target Guatemala Archdiocesan Office

Phone Messages Against a Staff Once Headed by Slain Bishop

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GUATEMALA CITY, MARCH 30, 2004 ( Threatening messages sent through mobile phones are targeting the staff of the human rights office once headed by a bishop who was murdered in 1998.

The messages are targeting the staff of the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, the same office once headed by Auxiliary Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera.

The phone messages arrive «despite the fact that for security reasons the administrator of the telephone services and the numbers of the mobile phones were changed,» the office said in a recent statement.

To the above are added harassment and threatening phone calls. In fact, some of the office’s staff members have been followed «by vehicles that, when realizing they were detected, engaged in elusive maneuvers so as to avoid their number plates being read.»

Members of the «exhumations unit,» responsible for excavating possible clandestine cemeteries, have also been threatened.

«They have been coerced and intimidated by former paramilitary men to hinder the development of the work, which is authorized by the Public Ministry and the corresponding jurisdictional body,» the statement reported.

According to the human rights office, the pressures «are being intensified at a time when important hearings might take place for the trial of Bishop Gerardi’s murder, and massive commemorations are being planned for the anniversary of his martyrdom.»

Bishop Gerardi, known for his defense of human rights, was beaten to death in the garage of his residence on April 16, 1998.

Two days earlier, the office he headed presented a report on human rights violations committed during the 36-year civil war. It blamed the army for 80% of the violations. Some 200,000 people died or «disappeared» during the 1960-1996 conflict.

In August 2001, a court sentenced three military men to 30 years in prison for the murder of Bishop Gerardi. A priest was given a 20-year sentence for complicity.

Sergeant Obdulio Villanueva, one of those sentenced, was killed in February 2003 in a prison revolt. The other men who were sentenced are retired Colonel Disrael Lima and his son, Captain Byron Lima, and the priest, Father Mario Orantes.

In October 2002 an appeals court overruled the first judgment and ordered a retrial, but that decision was later suspended by the Supreme Court of Justice’s Review Chamber, pending a final pronouncement.

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