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Murder Trial in Guatemala Starts, 12 Years After Crime - 2002-09-03

Nearly 12 years to the day since Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack was brutally murdered, a high-profile trial has begun against three military officers accused as the masterminds behind the crime. Observers in Guatemala and abroad are heralding this as a landmark case.

A few dozen protestors sing and chant for justice outside the Guatemala City court house, moments before the long-awaited trial for the 1990 murder of Myrna Mack begins.

Carmen Agreda is one of them. She says she is here to help the cause of Helen Mack, Myrna's sister, who has dedicated the past 12 years to fighting to bring those responsible for her sister's murder to justice.

Referring to the country's brutal 36-year civil war, she says Guatemalans lived through an armed conflict and there are many examples of crimes that have gone unpunished, including the case of Myrna Mack's murder.

In 1996 the government and the guerrillas signed a peace accord bringing an end to the conflict, in which some 200,000 people, mostly Maya Indians, were killed or disappeared.

Government prosecutors and Helen Mack maintain that Myrna Mack's murder was a politically-motivated war-time crime. Myrna Mack had published a report in 1989 on the government's counter-insurgency campaign, saying the operation caused the internal displacement and suffering of Guatemala's indigenous population.

In 1993, courts ruled that an army sergeant was the man who had stabbed Ms. Mack 27 times, on a street in Guatemala's capital. Soon after, prosecutors accused two retired colonels and a retired general as the instigators of the crime.

For the past eight years, in the face of delays and alleged intimidation of witnesses and legal system workers involved in the case, Helen Mack has been fighting to bring the officers to court.

International human rights groups have rallied around Helen Mack's cause, demanding the case move forward.

Former colonel Juan Guillermo Oliva, is one of the three defendants, all of whom maintain their innocence. As he waited for the trial to start in the packed Guatemala City courthouse, he said he expressed concern over whether he could get a fair trial in such a high profile case.

He says he believes in the justice system and thinks this case will strengthen it, but that he is worried that the international pressure could affect the judge's decision.

Outside the courthouse, supporters of the accused displayed a banner reading: "foreigners if you come here to corrupt our judges you are not welcome."

It could be three months until the three-judge panel delivers a verdict.