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Convicted killer of Guatemalan bishop dies in prison riot. (World).

One of the men convicted in the 1998 slaying of a Guatemalan bishop was killed during a prison riot in Guatemala City.

Jose Obdulio Villanueva, a sergeant in the military's elite presidential guard, was serving a 30-year prison term for the murder of Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera of Guatemala City.

Villanueva's death occurred during an early morning prison uprising Feb. 12 at the Men's Preventive Detention Center. A group of youth gang members broke out of their wing of the prison and attacked a separate section where several military officials were being held. The officers broke through a wall to escape their attackers.

Villanueva, the lowest ranking among them, reportedly held off the attackers while the others escaped. Villanueva was tortured and beheaded. Six other prisoners also were killed in the riot.

In response to Villanueva's killing, the London-based human rights agency Amnesty International demanded an investigation.

"We fear that Villanueva's murder may have been orchestrated to remove him as a potential witness against other military higher-ups allegedly involved in the bishop's murder against whom proceedings remain open," the organization stated.

In a landmark victory for human rights advocates, in 2001 Villanueva, two other military officers and a Catholic priest were found guilty of the bishop's murder (NCR, June 21, 2001).

The prison violence came just hours before a decision by Guatemala's Supreme Court to affirm the conviction of the four men. An appeals court had overturned the original conviction in October, but the government prosecutor and lawyers for the Guatemalan church's Human Rights Office had appealed the ruling.

The Supreme Court upheld the original conviction, but ordered the original three-judge panel to hold a new sentencing hearing for the three surviving convicted men.

Amnesty International noted that lawyers for the remaining convicts--Col. Disrael Lima Estrada, Capt. Byron Lima Oliva and Fr. Mario Orantes--quickly announced that they would file new appeals with the Supreme Court.

The two officers are serving 30-year sentences. Orantes, who is in poor health and remains under police guard in a Guatemala City hospital, was sentenced to 20 years.

If the new appeal is successful in reopening the case, "we fear it will be more difficult to sustain the original convictions, because so many witnesses will have either been eliminated or frightened into silence," Amnesty stated.

Villanueva's death was the latest in a string of murders of people linked to the case.

In December, Noe de Jesus Gomez, a key witness against Villanueva, was shot to death, and authorities have made no arrests in the case. At least seven other witnesses have been killed, and six witnesses, two prosecutors, and one judge fled the country in fear for their lives.

The judges in the 2001 trial had ordered the government to investigate other high-ranking military officials who may have been involved in Gerardi's killing, which came just two days after the prelate released a report criticizing the army's conduct during the country's civil war.

Nery Rodenas, director of the church rights office, said the prison riot demonstrates how the Guatemalan government "has ceded to criminals the control and management of the prisons."

Yet, why the youth gang members launched their attack on the section that held the military prisoners remains unclear.

Some observers suggested the violence was part of a campaign to pressure authorities to transfer military prisoners to a military facility, something trial judges have resisted.

Lima Oliva claimed the attackers had weapons smuggled into the prison with official complicity, and he blamed lawyers from the church rights office for Villanueva's death.

"They are the ones that put a member of the military in a civilian jail," he told reporters.

Yet other observers suggested the violence was a revolt against the extortion racket that Lima Oliva exercised within the prison.

"No prisoner got any privileges without first paying something to Capt. Lima," said Mario Domingo, a lawyer for the church rights office.

Following the incident, Lima Estrada and Lima Oliva were moved to another prison in the Guatemalan capital. Lima Oliva warned Feb. 13 that if prison authorities did not move the youth gang members out of the prison where the violence took place, other prisoners "will begin to kill them in groups of five at a time."
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Title Annotation:Jose Obdulio Villanueva
Author:Jeffrey, Paul
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:2GUAT
Date:Feb 28, 2003
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