By JAMES LEMOYNE, SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (NYT) 965 words
In Human Rights Court, Honduras Is First to Face Death Squad Trial
Published: January 19, 1988
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica, Jan. 18 - LEAD: In the first case ever tried by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in which a Government has been put on trial, Honduras is being accused here of maintaining army death squads that caused the ''disappearance'' of civilians suspected of being leftists.
In the first case ever tried by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in which a Government has been put on trial, Honduras is being accused here of maintaining army death squads that caused the ''disappearance'' of civilians suspected of being leftists.
Honduras denies the charge, but two witnesses involved in the case have been shot to death in Honduras in the last two weeks in what human rights advocates assert is an effort by Honduran Army death squads to silence their critics.
Killings by Government death squads in Honduras since 1980 are well known to the Reagan Administration and to the Central Intelligence Agency, which trained Honduran soldiers who then worked in the death squads, according to several American officials and a former member of a Honduran death squad who said he was trained by the C.I.A.
Despite that knowledge, the Reagan Administration continues to contend that Honduras has an acceptable human rights record, continues to aid the Honduran police and army and appears to have done nothing to assist the trial under way here nor denounce the killings of witnesses in Honduras.
''I have never seen a case in which the United States Government is so deeply linked to the human rights abuses of a Government as in Honduras,'' Aryeh Neier, vice chairman of a New York-based human rights group, Americas Watch, said in an interview.
''The killings of witnesses in this trial is a direct threat to the integrity of the Inter-American system, which the United States has not in any way defended.''
The Inter-American court, which is hearing the case here and is expected to reach a verdict within the next two months, is a judicial arm of the Organization of American States, of which the United States and Honduras are members.
Honduras has promised to fully and immediately comply with a new Central American peace treaty that demands that Governments in the region respect and defend human rights.
The lead witness in the trial here, Miguel Angel Pavon, was shot to death with a friend four days ago in the town of San Pedro Sula, a center of recent death squad killings in Honduras.
Mr. Pavon headed the regional office of the Honduran Human Rights Commission, the most outspoken human rights group in the country and the target of regular criticisms by American and Honduran officials.
Two weeks ago, unknown assailants also fatally shot Jose Isaias Vilorio, a former Honduran Army sergeant who is believed to have been a death squad member and who was to have testified here today. The gunmen covered Mr. Vilorio with a rebel banner after killing him, which Honduran officials say indicates leftist rebels killed him.
Critics of the Government say the rebel banner was a crude attempt by an army death squad to shift the blame for the killing. The Honduran guerrillas have not carried out such a killing before and it seems unlikely they would shoot a witness in a trial that is so damaging to the Government.
The court case here focuses on the disappearances in Honduras from 1981 to 1982 of two Honduran civilians, Saul Godinez and Manfredo Velasquez, as well as two Costa Ricans, Yolanda Solis and Francisco Fairen Garbi. The families of the four disappeared civilians contend that army death squads captured and killed them, a charge the Honduran Government denies. Fraction of the Deaths
While the case formally deals only with the four missing persons named in the trial, it is being treated by diplomats and judges as of far greater symbolic significance. In effect, the trial is the first public effort by the Organization of American States to condemn the activities of Government death squads throughout Latin America.
The four people in the case here appear to be among an estimated 140 civilians killed by army death squads in Honduras from 1980 to the present. Those 140 civilians are a small fraction of the tens of thousands who have been captured, tortured and killed without trial by the armies of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala, among other offenders.
A former Honduran Army sergeant, Florencio Caballero, testified in earlier proceedings that he was a member of an army death squad. He detailed his involvement in interrogating civilians and said the prisoners were all killed.
Mr. Caballero said he was trained by the C.I.A. to be an interrogator, which American officials concede is true. Mr. Caballero said in an interview last year that he tried to hide his death squad activities from his C.I.A. advisers in Honduras, but American officials say the C.I.A. and the American Embassy in Honduras were well aware of the slayings.
Despite that fact, the Reagan Administration has annually asserted that the Honduran Government is improving its human rights performance.
That approval comes despite the fact that until recently a leading official in the Honduran police was an army officer well known to the American Embassy as the former commander of army death squads, according to three American officials and two Honduran soldiers.
The army officer is Lieut. Col. Alexander Hernandez, who has denied the charges against him and has been called to testify. American officials and Honduran military sources said Colonel Hernandez formerly commanded the 316th Battalion, an intelligence unit established by the C.I.A. that ran several death squads.
Besides running political death squads, the Honduran Army has also executed dozens of suspected leftist rebels caught in army sweeps in recent years, including an American priest, James Carney, who was interrogated and then killed in 1983, according to two Honduran soldiers and American officials. Mr. Caballero said he personally interrogated Father Carney before the priest was killed.