Court frees suspect in murder of academic

May 23, 2003

THES reporters survey a worrying human rights situation in Latin America

A Guatemalan appeals court has overturned the conviction of a suspected author of the plot to kill academic Myrna Mack Chang and upheld a decision to acquit the other two suspects. The United Nations and the US ambassador to Guatemala both criticised the outcome.

Dr Mack, an anthropologist with degrees from the UK universities of Durham and Manchester, was killed by a member of the presidential security staff, Noel de Jesus Beteta, as she left her office in Guatemala City in 1990.

Dr Mack's family said she was killed because the state feared she would reveal repressive activities by the Guatemalan army in a book she planned to write about her work with people displaced by Guatemala's civil war. The only conviction that remains is that of Mr Beteta, who is serving 35 years in prison, 25 of them for Dr Mack's murder.

The three accused of masterminding the murder - Augosto Godoy Gaitán, Juan Guillermo Oliva Carrera and Juan Valencia Osorio - were senior officers in the Presidential Security Service.

Mr Osorio was sentenced to 30 years in October 2002 for ordering Dr Mack's death. He appealed and was freed when the judge ruled there had been an inconsistency at his trial. Helen Mack, the dead woman's sister, and the public prosecutor appealed against the acquittals that the two other accused were granted at the October 2002 trial. Ms Mack now plans to appeal to Guatemala's supreme court.

Neil Hicks, director of the Human Rights Defenders project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said: "It again demonstrates the inability of the Guatemalan justice system to effectively address serious crimes committed by the military."

At a February hearing in the Inter-American Human Rights Court in Costa Rica, Guatemalan representatives admitted partial responsibility for the killing but then walked out of the hearing.

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