Guatemalan general charged with 'campaign of terror'

The Associated Press

BOSTON (AP)ÄA Guatemalan general running for president of his country was ordered by a U.S. judge Wednesday to pay $47.5 million to eight Guatemalans and an American nun who were victims of atrocities committed by his soldiers in the 1980s.

U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock held Gen. Hector Alejandro Gramajo responsible for the torture and murder of thousands of civilians in the Central American nation while he was vice chief of staff and director of the army general staff in the early 1980s and defense minister from 1987 to 1990.

Gramajo was found liable by default, meaning the judge ruled against him because he did not contest the lawsuit.

''Gramajo refused to act to prevent such atrocities,'' the judge ruled. ''Indeed, the evidence suggests that Gramajo devised and directed the implementation of an indiscriminate campaign of terror against civilians such as plaintiffs and their relatives.''

Human-rights lawyers acknowledged it will be extremely difficult for the victims to collect from the general.

Gramajo, who is seeking the nomination of his rightist party in Guatemala's presidential election sometime later this year, denied any role in the alleged crimes and said he had not defended himself because he didn't have the money.

''I am a general out of the ordinary who fought for democracy'' and also played a key part in defeating leftist insurgents, he said in a telephone interview Wednesday from his home in Guatemala City. ''They are attacking me for being successful.''

Gramajo supported civilian government by helping quash two coups in 1988-89, yet he directed military operations in the western highlands during one of the most violent periods in this country's 31-year-old civil war.

Eight Kanjobal Indians who fled Guatamala after soldiers ransacked their villages and killed their relatives, and Sister Dianna Ortiz, who was kidnapped, raped and tortured while working in Guatemala, accused him of being personally responsible for the campaign of terror.

The Guatemalans claimed they were tortured and imprisoned, or were forced to watch as relatives were tortured to death or summarily executed. Most are seeking political asylum in the United States, and one has settled in Canada.

''At last, one person will be held accountable for the crimes the military has committed,'' Ortiz, who now works in Washington for the nonprofit Guatemalan Human Rights Commission-U.S.A., said in a statement. ''At the same time, my heart is heavy because I know that the cries of thousands of Guatemalans remain unheard, as the abuses continue.''

The 35-year-old Roman Catholic nun had testified that she was kidnapped by men in uniform from a convent in Antigua, about 30 miles from Guatemala City. She said her captors beat and raped her, burned her more than 100 times with cigarettes and lowered her into a pit filled with bodies and rats.

Anne Manuel, deputy director of Human Rights Watch-Americas, a nonprofit group in New York, said the victims will have a hard time trying to collect.

If Gramajo doesn't pay, opponents could use that to challenge any request he might make for a visa to travel to the United States, said Beth Stephens, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers. But she, too, held out little hope the victims will collect anytime soon.

The State Department had no immediate comment.

The lawsuits were filed in the United States under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which gives anyone the right to sue a person living in the United States for human rights violations committed anywhere in the world.

Gramajo had been served with the first lawsuit in 1991, the day he graduated from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. A week later, he was served with the second lawsuit at his apartment.

He filed an initial answer to the lawsuits but returned to Guatamala without contesting the charges.

''The timing (of the judgment) ... has a lot to do with my candidacy,'' with the recent scandal involving Guatemala and the CIA, and with the peace talks under way between the government and leftist rebels, the general said.

As to the allegations in the lawsuits, ''I don't admit any of that. ... I haven't done anything wrong.''

Earlier this month, Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., charged that a Guatemalan officer on the CIA payroll was responsible for the murders of an American innkeeper and the Guatemalan rebel husband of an American lawyer. The allegation caused an uproar on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

In the April 17 edition of The Nation, journalist Allan Nairn reported that Gramajo had been on the CIA payroll. But the general said ''never in my life'' did he accept CIA funds.

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