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The BBC's Bill Hayton reports
"The first time officers have been convicted of a political killing"
 real 56k

Friday, 8 June, 2001, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
Guatemala court jails bishop's killers
Jose Obdulio Villanueva, Byron Lima Oliva, Disrael Lima Estrada
Three army officers were sentenced to 30 years in jail
A Guatemalan court has sentenced three army officers and a priest to between 20 and 30 years in prison for the murder of Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998.

Among those sentenced was a former military intelligence chief, Colonel Disrael Lima Estrada, who prosecutors accused of masterminding the killing.

They said Bishop Gerardi, head of the church's human rights office, was bludgeoned to death to keep him from testifying in possible trials over atrocities committed during Guatemala's 36-year civil war.

The trial has been seen as a test of Guatemala's justice system by human rights activists, who believe the murder was carried out on the highest orders.

Damaging report

Catholic church lawyers believe former President Alvaro Arzu was involved in planning the killing, and requested the judges to order an investigation.

Juan Gerardi
Gerardi released a damaging report into wartime atrocities
Mr Arzu used parliamentary immunity to avoid testifying.

Gerardi was killed two days after releasing a report which blamed the military for 95% of the atrocities committed during the civil war which ended in 1996.

Some 150,000 people are believed to have been killed in the conflict, and more than 50,000 disappeared, but so far most of the crimes have gone unpunished.

Key testimony

Colonel Lima was sentenced along with his son, Captain Byron Lima Oliva and Jose Obdulio Villanueva, both members of the presidential guard. All three were sentenced to 30 years in jail.

Gerardi's assistant, Reverend Mario Orantes, found guilty of acting as an accomplice, was given a 20-year prison term. The bishop's cook, Margarita Lopez, was found innocent of the same charges.

The court said it based its ruling largely on the testimony of the key prosecution witness, Ruben Chanax, a homeless man who claimed he had been hired by the army officers.

Mr Chanax said he had been told to spy on Bishop Gerardi, and to alter the scene of the crime before the police arrived. He told the court he had been warned that someone would die.

Death threats

Human rights groups and church organisations held a vigil outside the court as the verdict was read amid tight security.

Two investigating judges, three key witnesses and at least one prosecutor fled Guatemala in fear of their lives.

Flor de Maria Garcia, the final investigating magistrate, said she had received death threats at every step of the process.

On the eve of the trial, which began in March, a bomb exploded outside the house of one of the three judges hearing the case.

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23 Mar 01 | Americas
Bishop's murder trial begins
12 May 00 | Americas
Guatemala reveals military files
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