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Monday, April 27, 1998 Published at 20:44 GMT 21:44 UK

World: Americas

Guatemalan bishop murdered
image: [ Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera at a press conference a few days before his death ]
Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera at a press conference a few days before his death

A leading Roman Catholic churchman in Guatemala has been killed in front on his house in the capital, Guatemala City.

Bishop Juan Gerardi, 75, an outspoken human rights activist, is reported to have been beaten to death by unidentified assailants late on Sunday.

Police investigators blanketed the area early Monday searching for clues to the murder.

Observers said the killing may be in retaliation for a report Gerardi compiled on human rights abuses and the human cost of Guatemala's 36-year-long civil war.

Alice Jay, of the Roman Catholic Institute of International Affairs on the significance of the report (1'39)
The war ended in a peace accord signed by the rightist government and leftist rebels in December 1996.

The human rights report, released last week by church officials, said that some 150,000 people in this country of 10 million were killed in the conflict, one of the longest and most brutal in the Americas.

Some 50,000 more are still missing, according to the report, and an estimated one million people were displaced by the violence, either leaving the country or hiding in the countryside.

Also, some 200,000 children were orphaned and 40,000 women were widowed.

The report, three years in the making and the first of its kind in Guatemala, was delivered during a mass at the main cathedral to government representatives and members of indigenous groups.

Guetamala is an impoverished, mostly indigenous Central American nation of 10 million people has one of the most abysmal human rights records in the hemisphere.

Death squads still active

One prominent human rights activist who declined to give his name said that the murder was "a clear message" that death squads "continue to operate in the country and do not want the truth to be known."

In the 1980s Gerardi was bishop of the archdiocese of Quiche, in northern Guatemala, where some of the worst human rights abuses by the army took place.

Gerardi made many enemies in military and right-wing circles for his constant criticism of human rights abuses by authorities.

On Thursday the current Bishop of Quiche, Julio Cabrera, warned that releasing the human rights report could lead to revenge killings.

A Vatican spokesman, Father Pedro Freites, expressed shock over the murder of the Bishop, who he described as one of the new martyrs of the Latin American Catholic Church.


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