Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

GUATEMALA: Prisoner Killed by Lethal Injection

Celina Zubieta

GUATEMALA CITY, Feb 10 1998 (IPS) - Sevenfold killer Manuel Martinez Coronado became the first prisoner to be killed by lethal injection in Guatemala early Tuesday morning.

The execution took place after the final appeal by the Human Rights Legal Action Centre failed to win a stay of execution from the Constitutional Court last Wednesday.

The human rights body claimed Martinez, a rural farmer, was not given a fair trial, but the order went ahead regardless.

National and international journalists, and around 30 photographers were present at the Pavon Model Rehabilitation Farm, 16 kilometres outside the capital, to await the 12GMT deadline.

Inside the purpose-built “death module,” consisting of a cell, the death chamber and an observation room for lawyers and the press, Martinez had been strapped down to the table with restraining belts some minutes earlier, his irregular breathing betraying his nervousness.

At the appointed hour, he received the fatal cocktail of a sleeping draught, a muscular and pulmonary paralyser and potassium chloride to stop his heart from beating.

A dark glass separated the executioners from the prisoner.

At 6.24 am (12.24 GMT), following an examination by the forensic doctors, Martinez was declared clinically dead. The sobs of his relatives could be heard outside the cellblock.

The Evangelist minister who attended the death, said the last words uttered by Martinez were; “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

The last wish of the condemned man had been to contract civil and religious marriage with his common law wife, Manuela Giron, in the presence of their three children.

The ceremony took place on death row Tuesday morning in the presence of three evangelical ministers, Martinez’s children and parents, and some prison authorities.

Martinez was found guilty of murdering seven members of the same family, including four children, on May 16, 1995, on a small holding in the village of El Palmar, in the eastern department of Chiquimula.

The massacre, prompted by a land dispute, was witnessed by another 10 year-old son of the family, Jaime Arias Miguel, who escaped to tell the authorities the identity of the murderer.

A survey in Guatemalan daily ‘Prensa Libre,’ showed 86 percent of national citizens were in favour of the death penalty.

Attorney General, Acisclo Valladares said the execution of Martinez “will be an example to criminals, making them aware they will have to pay with their own lives if they do not respect those of other human beings.”

“Those who live by the sword die by the sword, therefore I consider the death penalty must be applied immediately to the others tried for this crime, so that it dissuade crime,” he added.

However, Mario Polanco of the Mutual Support Group – which works with the families of the disappeared in Latin America – condemned the measure as racist, as did indigenous leader and left- wing deputy, Rosalina Tuyuc, who explained it is applied unequally, hitting those without the means to defend themselves.

“To end crime the causes that provoke it must be tackled,” said Polanco, pointing the finger at organised crime and poverty in particular.

Nineth Montenegro, human rights leader and left-wing deputy said 99 percent of the prison population come from amongst the poor, while “the true criminals are nver caught, nor will they be, as they have great political, economic and even military influence.”

And Ronalth Ochaeta, director of the Archbishopric Human Rights Office said “the death penalty does not form a precedent preventing crimes from being committed.”

He said there should be a criminal policy to rehabilitate offenders, to work in crime prevention and to offer citizen security.

Guatemala is the only country of Latin America still implementing the death penalty, apart from Cuba.

The first execution took place in 1946, with the shooting of a rapist and killer.

Then, under the dictatorship of General Efrain Rios Montt (1982- 83), around 16 people were sent before the firing squads after being condemned by “special courts.”

Lastly, in 1996, two men found guilty of raping and killing a four year-old girl were also shot.

The cruel images of the guards finishing the prisoners off were seen all around the world, generating a great deal of criticism, whereby Congress approved the application of the lethal injection as a “less gory” manner of carrying out the death penalty.

The human rights organisation, Amnesty International had asked President Alvaro Arzu to change the sentence on Martinez considering that despite the gravity of the crime, the death penalty has been shown to have no dissuasive effect on crime, merely brutalising society.

The next prisoners possibly in line for the lethal injection are the former police officers Miguel Angel Lopez Calo, Miguel Angel Perez Revolorio and Anibal Archila Perez, accused of one murder and another attempted murder.

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