BY FRANCES ROBLES, MiamiHerald.com, July 3, 2009
TEGUCIGALPA -- The military officers who rushed deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya out of the country Sunday committed a crime but will be exonerated for saving the country from mob violence, the army's top lawyer said.
In an interview with The Miami Herald and El Salvador's elfaro.net, army attorney Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza acknowledged that top military brass made the call to forcibly remove Zelaya -- and they circumvented laws when they did it.
It was the first time any participant in Sunday's overthrow admitted committing an offense and the first time a Honduran authority revealed who made the decision that has been denounced worldwide.
''We know there was a crime there,'' said Inestroza, the top legal advisor for the Honduran armed forces. ``In the moment that we took him out of the country, in the way that he was taken out, there is a crime. Because of the circumstances of the moment this crime occurred, there is going to be a justification and cause for acquittal that will protect us.''
Zelaya was ousted in a predawn raid at his house Sunday after he vowed to defy a court order that ruled a nonbinding referendum to be held that day illegal. The leftist wealthy rancher had clashed with the attorney general, the Supreme Court, Congress and the military he commanded.
But instead of being taken to court to stand trial for abuse of power and treason, the military swept him out of bed at gunpoint and forced him into exile.
Inestroza described weeks of mounting pressure, in which a president who was viewed as allied with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez used soldiers as ''political tools.'' The attorney general's office had ordered Zelaya's arrest, and the Supreme Court, Inestroza said, ordered the armed forces to carry it out.
So when the powers of state united in demanding his ouster, the military put a pajama-clad Zelaya on a plane and sent him to Costa Rica. The rationale: Had Zelaya been jailed, throngs of loyal followers would have erupted into chaos and demanded his release with violence.
''What was more beneficial, remove this gentleman from Honduras or present him to prosecutors and have a mob assault and burn and destroy and for us to have to shoot?'' he said. ``If we had left him here, right now we would be burying a pile of people.''
This week, Deputy Attorney General Roy David Urtecho told reporters that he launched an investigation into why Zelaya was removed by force instead of taken to court. Article 24 of Honduras' penal code will exonerate the joint chiefs of staff who made the decision, because it allows for making tough decisions based on the good of the state, Inestroza said.
U.S. State Department lawyers are studying whether the action is legally considered a military coup, even though the person who was constitutionally next in line took power.
Inestroza acknowledged that after 34 years in the military, he and many other longtime soldiers found Zelaya's allegiance to Chávez difficult to stomach. Although he calls Zelaya a ''leftist of lies'' for his bourgeoisie upbringing, he admits he'd have a hard time taking orders from a leftist.
Memories of the 1980s fight against guerrilla insurgents are still fresh in Honduras.
''We fought the subversive movements here and we were the only country that did not have a fratricidal war like the others,'' he said. ``It would be difficult for us, with our training, to have a relationship with a leftist government. That's impossible. I personally would have retired, because my thinking, my principles, would not have allowed me to participate in that.''
And if Zelaya comes back, he'll have to retire anyway.
''I will resign and leave the country, and so would most of the military,'' Inestroza said. ``They would come after us and the other political leaders who were involved in this.''
Zelaya has said he will try to stage a brazen comeback on Sunday. The Organization of American States' secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, arrives in Tegucigalpa Friday to try to lay the groundwork for Zelaya's return. Insulza refuses to meet any member of the new administration led by the former head of Congress, Roberto Micheletti.
''I am 54 years years old,'' Inestroza said. ``I left my youth, my adolescence and part of my adulthood here -- an entire lifetime. You should understand it's very difficult for someone who has dedicated his whole life to a country and an institution to see, from one day to another, a person who is not normal come and want to change the way of life in the country without following the steps the law indicates.''