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Petty crime or something more?

Human rights workers in Guatemala raise alarm about recent cases of attacks that go unsolved.

As part of an Amnesty International research mission to Guatemala, Barbara Bocek was trying to document an escalation in abuses against human rights workers.

Her research last month was unexpectedly bolstered by first-hand experience.

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Ms. Bocek says that, just days after Amnesty International had issued a press statement calling for an end to intimidation of Guatemalan human rights activists, two armed men forced her into her Guatemala City hotel's stairwell, bound her mouth, feet, and hands in tape, and then left, saying they would return. She was found hours later by hotel security and a colleague.

Interior Minister Byron Barrientos, the only government official to comment on the incident, says the abduction never happened.

The case is heightening fears here among local human rights workers, who say that the government is increasingly attempting to pass off harassment as the work of common criminals.

"This case seems to go a step further, the international impact is greater, and it's hard to construe this act as common crime," says Guillermo Fernandez-Maldonado, the director of Minugua, the human rights program for the United Nations Mission in Guatemala.

He says that while the government response to many recent incidents involving human rights workers has been to dismiss them ascommon crime, "the hypothesis that a serious institution, like Amnesty International, fabricated this attack is even more bold."

Guatemala "approaches being one of the worst situations in Latin America vis-a-vis threats against human rights workers, and that wasn't the case a year ago," says Andrew Miller, a Latin American specialist for Amnesty International.

According to Mr. Fernandez-Maldonado, in Minugua's upcoming human rights report for July 2000 to June 2001, one of the important topics covered will be the "elevated number of complaints" that human rights organizations operating in Guatemala have filed with Minugua, the organization responsible for monitoring the implementation of the country's 1996 peace accords, which ended the nation's 36-year civil war.

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While Minugua officials declined to give figures until the report is released, they say the most disturbing factor is not the number of incidents, but the increasing boldness of the attacks, which range from phoned death threats to physical attacks to office break-ins in which hard drives and files are stolen.

Fernandez-Maldonado says most of these acts have the appearance of common crime, the hypothesis the government has maintained in a number of these cases. Nonetheless, he says the concentration of similar complaints in such a short time period is "absolutely unusual."

Human rights workers and Minugua say the recent attacks and threats may be related to activists' efforts to bring politically sensitive cases involving war crimes and political crimes to the nation's courts.

"It's not a coincidence that as groups begin to take the search for the truth to the next step - holding people accountable - that this wave of acts has emerged," says Mr. Miller. "That movement has touched a raw nerve."

The best-known assault on a human rights activist was the 1998 murder of Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi, the director of the church's human rights office. He was bludgeoned to death two days after releasing a report that attributed the vast majority of deaths in the civil war to the armed forces.

Initially government officials said the murder was a common crime. Members of the church's human rights office, prosecutors, and a judge assigned to the case became the victims of break-ins, attacks and harassment.

But last month, in a historic decision, judges ruled what the church and human rights groups had long maintained: that the crime was political. Three men linked to the Guatemalan military and a priest were convicted.

But other cases, like the recent murder ofUS nun Barbara Ford, who worked with war victims here for years, develop differently.

Immediately after the nun's murder in May, human rights groups denounced the crime as a political assassination. Their accusations were bolstered by local press reports that Ford was shot nine times and that the men who apparently killed her to steal her car abandoned it blocks later.

Within a few days, however, an autopsy revealed that she was shot only once, and investigators determined that the car was abandoned after an anti-theft device in the vehicle caused the motor to stop. The case then did indeed appear to be a car robbery gone awry, or the common crime that Minister Barrientos had claimed it was.

Minugua officials say it is difficult to determine whether agents of the state were responsible in any of the recent acts, but add that the government's policy of dismissing political motives before investigations take place is a stumbling block to determining the truth of what happened.

"From the first case to the last one [in this recent wave] the state's investigations have not resolved any of the crimes," says Mr. Fernandez-Maldonado.

"This impunity justifies the climate of fear that exists."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor


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