Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

HONDURAS: Military Chiefs Face ‘Abuse of Power’ Charges

Thelma Mejía

TEGUCIGALPA, Jan 7 2010 (IPS) - As the Honduran Congress prepares to vote next week on an amnesty for both sides in the conflict triggered by the Jun. 28 coup in which President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown, the country’s top military chiefs have been charged with “abuse of power” for their role in the ouster.

Attorney General Luís Rubí filed arrest warrants Wednesday for armed forces chief of staff Gen. Romeo Vásquez, Air Force commander Venancio Cervantes, Navy chief Luis Javier Priand and two other top generals for having Zelaya removed from his home at gunpoint and put on a plane to Costa Rica, still in his pajamas.

They also face charges of illegal expatriation of a Honduran citizen.

The Supreme Court has three days to decide whether to accept the charges and initiate a case against the generals.

Although Zelaya’s removal was widely condemned by the international community, including the Organisation of American States (OAS), the European Union and the United States, the coup government headed by de facto President Roberto Micheletti – who was next in line for the presidency, as head of Congress – argue that it was part of a constitutional transfer of power.

The series of events that culminated in the coup were sparked by the left-leaning Zelaya’s attempt to hold a non-binding referendum to ask voters whether they wanted to elect a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. The courts and Congress declared the initiative unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court issued a warrant for the president’s arrest – but not his exile.

Legal expert Roberto Velásquez said the charges against the military chiefs simply pave the way for them to be covered by the political amnesty expected to be approved by Congress next week.

The requirement of an amnesty for political crimes was dropped from the U.S.-brokered agreement signed by the two sides in late October to put an end to the political conflict.

One of the central points in the agreement, the reinstatement of Zelaya – who snuck back into the country in September and has been holed up in the Brazilian embassy since then – before his term was to end on Jan. 27 has gone unfulfilled.

Latin America is split with respect to the Nov. 29 elections, with some countries refusing to recognise the results and others congratulating president-elect Porfirio Lobo on his landslide victory.

Velásquez told IPS that the amnesty will also cover Zelaya and his associates “for everything considered a political crime, but not for common crimes,” such as the allegations of corruption faced by the former president and his closest allies.

The analyst, who pointed out that the amnesty was rejected in the negotiations by both Zelaya and Micheletti, said the issue “has emerged again in response to pressure by the international community to create a kind of ‘forgive and forget’ mentality in the country that would allow the new government of president-elect Porfirio Lobo to initiate a process of internal reconciliation and international recognition.”

The current head of Congress, Alfredo Saavedra, told IPS that the country’s lawmakers are set to approve an amnesty “for political matters, but not related common crimes, because that would imply an acceptance of impunity, which no one wants.”

Armed forces chief of staff Gen. Vásquez said he and his fellow officers were prepared to go to court because “we respect the law.”

The question of a political amnesty has generated controversy in this Central American country for fear that it could be used to cover crimes like corruption, abuse of authority and violations of human rights and free speech.

Innovation and Unity Party (PINU) legislator Toribio Aguilera told IPS that “these concerns have been discussed in Congress and I can assure you that the amnesty will be for strictly political matters and will not cover common crimes, because we are tired of so much impunity.”

The charges against the military chiefs coincided with a two-day visit by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Craig Kelly, sent to Honduras to press for efforts to implement the agreement signed by the two sides in October, in order to overcome the marked polarisation and the political crisis.

He met separately with Zelaya, Micheletti, Lobo and business leaders as part of what U.S. Embassy spokesman Michael Stevens called an “intensive effort to achieve a breakthrough agreement” that would put an end to six months of isolation by the international community.

Micheletti said Kelly had once again asked him to step down before Lobo is sworn in on Jan. 27, in order to gain wider international recognition of the new government. But the de facto leader, complaining about “heavy pressure” that he called a “lack of respect,” said he had refused.

He added, however, that “for the tranquillity of Porfirio Lobo and the international community, I won’t attend the presidential inauguration in the national stadium; I will watch with my family from the government house and when the new president of Congress bestows the presidential sash…I will leave the government house with my family.”

He added that “Leaving my post now would be a violation of the constitution that we have worked so hard to defend.”

A U.S. Embassy statement said Kelly’s visit was aimed at “re-establishing the democratic and constitutional order in Honduras and promoting national reconciliation,” as well as the “expeditious formation of a government of national unity and the establishment of a truth commission” to investigate responsibilities in the coup.

“Kelly stressed the United States’ concern about the deterioration of the economic situation (in Honduras) and the importance of normalising relations with the international community,” it added.

The communiqué also said Kelly had “expressed the willingness of the United States to work with President Lobo’s new government to help it meet the challenges it faces once the Accord has been implemented.”

For his part, Zelaya said Kelly’s visit reaffirmed U.S. interest in Honduras’ reinsertion into the concert of nations. But he added that “the coup plot remains in place; the coup has been consolidated. The United States do not have the strength to remove Micheletti because they are part of the coup.”

With regard to the charges against the armed forces chiefs, the ousted leader told the local press they were just “a trick, a smokescreen to justify the amnesty…an attempt to give the judiciary a whitewash.”

But Lobo, who has suggested that Micheletti resign and is calling for an amnesty to boost national reconciliation, said “the international community has asked for these requisites in order to restore confidence in Honduran society.”

“Perhaps those who say they don’t need (an amnesty) are actually in greatest need of it, but don’t dare confess in public what they say in private,” he added.

The president-elect said that in conversations with Micheletti, “he has reflected on this aspect, and has shown great willingness, but there are very conservative groups around him that limit his maneuvering room.”

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