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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 20:49 GMT
Bishop's murder trial begins
Former army captain Byron Lima, his father retired army colonel Disrael Lima, and Jose Obdulio
Three of the defendants are army officers
By Mike Lanchin in Guatemala City

Proceedings have begun in Guatemala in the trial of five people, including three military officers, for the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, a leading human rights campaigner.

The trial, considered a test case for Guatemala's fragile legal system, was originally scheduled to begin last month, but was postponed until this week after the military's lawyers filed counter-claims to try to stop the case.

Amnesty International has sent an observer to the trial which is expected to last up to three or four months.

Bishop Gerardi
Bishop Gerardi: Battered to death in 1998
Despite the delays and threats and intimidation of witnesses and judges, the ground-breaking trial eventually got off the ground.

The three army officers accused, dressed in smart civilian suits, sat impassively as the judge read out the charges against them of "extra-judicial" murder.

They are alleged to have killed the elderly Bishop Gerardi in reprisal for his long-standing criticism of the military for its human rights abuses during the past civil war.

Priest accused

A fourth accused, a round-faced priest named Father Mario Orantes, who lived with the bishop and is charged with assisting the murderers, sat motionless in a wheelchair to one side of the court.

Father Orantes has been confined to a hospital since his arrest over a year ago.

He was wheeled into court dressed in a bathrobe and felt slippers.

True to the almost theatrical nature of this three-year murder case, the first hour of proceedings was dedicated to reading out the long list of witnesses who will be called by each side.

Among more than 100 names are those of ex-President Alvaro Arsu, and a former defence minister.

Tight security

There was then a brief argument as to who had the right to film the proceedings.

Tight security has been in place for this trial - uniformed soldiers and police touting automatic weapons have been positioned both inside and outside the building.

There are three body searches to gain access to the court itself.

The authorities are taking no chances - earlier in the week, the house of one of the judges was bombed.

One of the army officers on trial told reporters that he also feared an attack on his life, possibly from others involved in the crime and still at large.

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See also:

23 Mar 01 | Americas
Guatemala bishop murder trial halted
12 May 00 | Americas
Guatemala reveals military files
04 May 00 | Americas
Guatemala Indians sue for 'genocide'
29 Dec 97 | Despatches
Guatemala - a year after the peace
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