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Guatemala Faces Scrutiny For Human Rights Abuses

UN commission may vote to group Guatemala with Cuba and Libya

WITH a cease-fire taking hold in El Salvador, Guatemala has become Central America's last bastion of armed strife.

The country's persistent human rights abuses and failure to end a 31-year-old civil war will put it under intense scrutiny at the annual meeting this month of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

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Representatives of the Guatemalan government will tell the commission that President Jorge Serrano Elias, who has been in power only one year, needs more time to prove his willingness to investigate and prosecute abuses.

"Only a blind person cannot see this country's progress in the defense of human rights and in the organization of the justice system," President Serrano said Jan. 30.

Human rights activists will present critical reports from the United States government and the human rights group Americas Watch as evidence that little has changed since Serrano took office on Jan. 14, 1991. According to the US State Department's annual report on Guatemala, released Jan. 31, protection of human rights improved in 1991, but security forces were still almost never held responsible for human rights violations, despite overwhelming evidence.

These words will weigh heavily on the UN commission's 53 members during the meeting in Geneva, which lasts through the beginning of March. The European Community (EC) will be especially concerned with the recent killings of several Europeans in Guatemala.

"I may say we are rather preoccupied by the number of violations in Guatemala, but still consider that the government itself is doing its best to fight these violations," says Serge Abou, chief of the Central America/Mexico/Cuba section of the European Parliament. "But the armed conflict still continues, and that is a fertile field for human rights violations by both sides."

Foreign Minister Gonzalo Menendez Park and other presidential advisers traveled to Europe, Mexico, and the US in January to describe the government's progress to skeptical members of the UN commission. They explained that the government has ordered the recapture of Army Capt. Hugo Contreras, who was accused in the June 1990 murder of US citizen Michael Devine but released last year by a military court for lack of evidence.

At their next meeting later this month, government and rebel leaders are expected to sign a human rights agreement, the first step toward a cease-fire.

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Since a civilian government took office six years ago, Guatemala has been reviewed in Geneva within a category reserved for countries that recognize they have problems with human rights and are working to solve them.

But following the recent killings of several European tourists and the continuation of abuses by the military - like the Army's massacre last month of four Indians, including a nine-year-old boy - the EC is pushing to have Guatemala reviewed and relegated to a more severe category, along with countries like Libya, Afghanistan, and Cuba.

"You can't really say that the situation has improved, even though we can say there have been positive signs on the side of the government," says one European diplomat in Guatemala City.

The process in Geneva infuriates many in Guatemala's government because some countries have no embassy here and know only what they read in highly critical press reports. The Guatemalans say a condemnation in Geneva could weaken the power Guatemala's civilian government has tried so hard to consolidate.

"It doesn't help us internally if we strengthen democratic rule and the international community doesn't recognize it," says Antonio Arenales Forno, who has represented Guatemala at the UN Human Rights Commission meetings for 10 years. "The right wing will say it's better to go back to a military government and that we might as well have a coup. We have to rebuild democratic institutions and the police destroyed by military regimes, and it will take five to 10 years to do this."

Mr. Arenales says Serrano's government has worked miracles to prosecute human rights cases - like the sentencing of two military men in December for the murders of 13 Indians - within a criminal justice system he says is as useless and dilapidated as a broken-down shack.

He says that this year, a proposed penal code could begin to overhaul the justice system, changing the courts' written and private proceedings into oral and public ones, and that the number of prosecutors in the attorney general's office could double from 20 to 40.

"I don't think there will be a vote [to condemn Guatemala] this year," Arenales says. "I think people are conscious of the changes Serrano has made.... He appointed a civilian as police chief and a former human rights attorney as the interior minister, and he changed the minister of defense twice to make sure that he has people around him who agree with his policy to protect human rights."

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