A former member of the paramilitary Civilian Self-Defence Patrols (PAC) has been sentenced by a court in Huehuetenango to six years in prison for kidnapping four journalists, while former mayor Mirta de Jesús López has received a two-year term. Both have been released on bail. Their victims were Prensa Libre staffers Fredy López, Alberto Ramírez, Emerson Días and Mario Linares, who were captured a group of former PAC members on 26 October 2003 and freed two days later.
28.10.2003 - Four kidnapped journalist said to be "all right"
Prensa Libre managing editor Gonzalo Marroquín, who went to Huehuetenango province yesterday with human rights ombudsman Sergio Morales, told Agence France-Presse: "Journalists of ours established contact with their kidnapped colleagues, and they are all right." He said their kidnappers were awaiting the arrival of a government commission and it was hoped they would be released today.
The government announced the formation of a high-level commission with the task of obtaining the release of the journalists. It consists of Alfonso Fuentes of the presidential human rights commission, Catalina Soberanis, secretary of state for peace, and Huehuetenango province governor Carlos Morales.
About 100 journalists demonstrated outside the congress and the presidential palace yesterday to protest against their colleagues’ abduction. Meanwhile it was learned that Henry Hernández and Thelma Shaw, the two employees of the ombudsman’s office who were kidnapped along with the journalists, were able to escape during the night of 26 October because they were not tied up like the other hostages. Hernández said one of the journalists, Fredy López, was hit by the kidnappers during the first few hours of their abduction. Prensa Libre has reported that a fifth person, a civilian, has also been taken hostage.
28.10.2003 - Ex-paramilitaries free four kidnapped journalists
Fredy López, Alberto Ramírez, Emerson Díaz and Mario Linares of the daily Prensa Libre were released on 28 October by the former members of the paramilitary Civilian Self-Defence Patrols (PAC) who took them hostage two days earlier. "We were very scared, especially then the commission did not arrive, because they said they were going to burn us," said Díaz. "They were angry, but they did not treat us badly," Linares said.
The governmental commission that was set up to negotiate their release said the kidnappers’ demands would be met. They had demanded payment of government compensation for their support for the army’s operations against guerrillas during the 1980s. PAC leaders said they would take similar action again if the government did not keep its promise.
27.10.2003 - Call for immediate release of four journalists abducted by former paramilitaries
Reporters Without Borders today voiced deep concern about the abduction yesterday of four journalists working for the daily Prensa Libre and two representatives of the human rights ombudsman, and called for their immediate release.
Reporters Fredy López and Alberto Ramírez and photographers Emerson Díaz (left on the photo) and Mario Linares (right on the photo) were taken hostage in the western province of Huehuetenango by former paramilitaries who are pressing for compensation from the government for the support they gave the army during the 1960-1996 civil war. Linares also freelances for the news agency Reuters.
"Treating these journalists as bargaining chips in political negotiations is unacceptable and will only discredit the kidnappers’ cause," Reporters Without Borders said. "It also further weakens press freedom by making the job of a journalist even more dangerous."
In a letter to President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard urged him to take no measures that could put the lives of the four journalists in danger, and to do everything possible to ensure they were freed as soon as possible.
"Press freedom had once again fallen victim to tensions resulting from the campaign for the 9 November presidential elections," Ménard said. Attacks and threats against the press have increased, totalling some 60 cases so far this year. Most have been attributed to supporters of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, the presidential candidate of the ruling Guatemalan Republic Front (FRG). One journalist has died.
Guatemala was placed 99th out of 166 countries in a worldwide ranking of countries according to respect for press freedom, which Reporters Without Borders issued on 20 October. Only three countries had worse rankings in the western hemisphere: Haiti (100th), Colombia (147th) and Cuba (165th).
Prensa Libre managing editor Gonzalo Marroquín told AFP that López and Diaz were the first to be kidnapped yesterday. After learning of their abduction, the newspaper sent the other two journalists together with the two representatives of the ombudsman’s office by helicopter, but they were kidnapped as well. "We are very concerned for their safety," Marroquín said.
According to Prensa Libre, the former paramilitaries will not release the journalists until they have been paid promised compensation. The police said the abductors took their six hostages to La Libertad last night.
López and Ramírez had gone to Huehuetenango province to cover Gen. Ríos Montt’s campaign. They were abducted at a roadblock set up by some 500 former members of the Civilian Self-Defence Patrols on the road to La Libertad, which Ríos Montt was scheduled to visit. Four hundred members of the security forces went there late yesterday afternoon but the ensuring negotiations were unsuccessful.
President Portillo promised to pay 680 dollars each to a total of 500,000 former paramilitaries who were recruited by the army in the 1980s in its fight against leftist guerrillas with the result that numerous civilians were killed. The proposed payment has been criticised by the international community and human rights organisations, which deplore that fact that it is those responsible for many deaths who are the first to be compensated, and not their victims. The FRG is also suspected of hoping to shore up its electoral support by means of the payment.
According to Marco Córtez, an investigating judge in charge of crimes against journalists and trade unionists, there have been more than 60 cases of threats against news media personnel in 2003. Hector Ramírez, a journalist with Radio Sonora and the TV news programme "Notisiete," died of a heart attack while being chased through the streets of the capital by Ríos Montt supporters on 24 July. They were protesting against a law banning Ríos Montt from standing as a candidate. Several journalists were attacked on that day and the following one.