The judges overseeing the trial of five people facing charges over the murder of a Roman Catholic bishop have asked the United Nations for protection.

The three judges made the request to Param Cumaraswamy, U.N. special reporter on the independence of judges and lawyers, when the U.N. envoy visited their courtroom on May 11.

Cumaraswamy was in Guatemala for three days to investigate death threats against judges and allegations of miscarriage of justice.

Three military officers and a priest are accused of killing Juan Gerardi, auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City, in 1998. The housekeeper of the parish where the bishop lived is charged with helping to cover up the crime.

Bishop Juan Gerardi was killed late on April 26, 1998, just two days after releasing a lengthy report blaming the country's military for most of the deaths and "disappearances"—abductions—during three decades of civil war.

The trial began in March. Shortly before it began, explosive devices were thrown at the house of Iris Barrios, one of the judges hearing the case. The judge was unharmed but angry. "It didn't make me afraid, it made me mad," she said.

Eduardo Cojulun, head of the three-judge panel, announced on April 27 that he had received two death threats.

Barrios, Cojulun and Amanda Guzman, the third judge, have all been given police bodyguards, and the Supreme Court auditorium where the case is being heard is heavily guarded. Visitors are thoroughly searched, and police with automatic weapons are stationed around the courtroom.

Chief prosecutor Leopoldo Zeissig and church attorney Mynor Melgar have also received repeated threats. Melgar represents the archdiocesan human rights office, which has been granted official standing in the trial.

According to a report from the Myrna Mack Foundation, a human rights organization here, in the first four months of this year 19 people called to testify in criminal trials received death threats. Ten of those cases were related to the Gerardi trial. Several witnesses at the trial have appeared in court wearing bulletproof vests.

At least eight people linked to the case—including judges, prosecutors and witnesses—have been forced to flee the country after being attacked or threatened.

Before he left the country on May 12, Cumaraswamy said President Alfonso Portillo's government "simply does not have the will to get to the bottom of the problem of impunity."

Cumaraswamy made no statement about how he would respond to the judges' request.

Seven weeks of testimony have now been completed in the trial, and prosecutors have said they are confident that they have proved their case against the accused.

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Although no trial witness has claimed to have seen the bishop's murder, prosecutors have presented testimony that they say places the accused at the scene of the crime and establishes that they possessed a motive to kill the prelate.

Key testimony came on April 30 from Ruben Chanax, who was brought back from hiding abroad in order to testify. At the time of the murder, Chanax was homeless and often lived in a park near the bishop's house.

Although prosecutors had presented a written deposition from him at the beginning of the trial, defense attorneys had insisted on their right to cross-examine him.

In his testimony, Chanax claimed that one of the defendants, retired Colonel Disrael Lima Estrada, had employed him for two years to spy on Bishop Gerardi. Chanax filed his reports every Saturday at the headquarters of the Presidential Guard, for which he was paid $40 a week, he said. To watch the bishop, Chanax stayed in the park in front of Bishop Gerardi's residence, washing cars in the daytime and sleeping on benches at night.

Chanax said that on the morning of the murder, Captain Byron Lima Oliva and Sergeant Jose Villanueva—both officials in the Presidential Guard and defendants in the trial—instructed him to take the day off. Chanax said he felt obliged to remain at his post, however. He said that at about 10 p.m. he saw Lima Oliva and Villanueva, both dressed in black, arrive at the residence shortly after a man without a shirt ran out of the house.

He said that soon after he was called by Lima Oliva and Villanueva into the garage, where, he testified, he saw Bishop Gerardi's body lying in a pool of blood.

Chanax said Lima Oliva gave him a pair of surgical gloves and ordered him to help drag Gerardi's body farther into the residence, then to use toilet paper to wipe up bloody footprints leading into the house. The witness said Villanueva recorded the scene with a video camera.

Chanax told the court that Lima Oliva and Villanueva had warned him that if he told anyone what he had seen, he would suffer the same fate as Bishop Gerardi.

Chanax also testified that shortly before these events he had seen Lima Estrada in a small store across the street, talking on a cellular phone.

The witness said that after the military officers left the scene, he realized that one of the church doors was open. He rang the bell at another door until Father Mario Orantes, also accused of murdering Gerardi, answered, Chanax said. When he told Orantes that the other door was open, the priest kicked it closed after warning him not to tell anyone that he had spoken with the priest.

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The fifth defendant in the case is Margarita Lopez, the parish housekeeper accused of helping to cover up the crime.

Other witnesses called by the prosecution have spoken of the alleged motive for the killing. Ronalth Ochaeta, the director of the Catholic archdiocesan rights office at the time of the killing, told the court on April 26 that he had spent the day with Bishop Gerardi until about two hours before the bishop's death. Ochaeta recalled that the bishop was excited about several new projects he had planned in the wake of the landmark report he had released two days earlier. Bishop Gerardi planned to launch legal action against several of the military officials responsible for massacres.

The prosecution has argued that the potential for such legal action frightened high-ranking military officials enough to have Bishop Gerardi eliminated.

Ochaeta told the court that Bishop Gerardi was concerned about his personal safety and that of Edgar Gutierrez, another church rights activist. "He said the country had enough martyrs already," Ochaeta testified.

The trial is expected to last several more weeks.

Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today's earlier coverage of the Gerardi trial and related violence in Guatemala includes:
U.S. Investigators Asked to Help Solve Mystery of Nun's Death in Guatemala | What initially seemed to be auto theft gone wrong now has overtones of politics and persecution. (June 1, 2001)

Almost Three Years After Bishop's Death, Five Go on Trial | Threats of violence continue as military officials stand trial in Guatemala (Apr. 11, 2001)

Guatemala's New Government to Probe 'Loss' of File on Murdered Bishop | File empty, reports Christian news agency (Feb. 2, 2000)

Peace Accord Amnesty Divides Church Leaders (Feb. 3, 1997)

Other media coverage of the trial includes:

Former Guatemala president rebuffs judges | Refusal to testify frustrates defense lawyers — Associated Press (May 22, 2001)

U.N. envoy criticizes Guatemala justice — BBC (May 13, 2001)

In Guatemala, activists again targets of violenceThe Boston Globe (May 13, 2001)

A trial for Guatemala's military | The case of five accused in a Catholic bishop's murder is expected to last at least three months — The Christian Science Monitor (Apr 11, 2001)