UN backs dog jailed for killing bishop
By Christina Lamb

(From the Electronic Telegraph)
Report of  December 6, 1998 

AN ELDERLY dog is behind bars in Guatemala, accused of murdering one of the country's highest ranking bishops in what human rights activists and United States forensic experts say is a State cover-up.

 Baloo, a docile 11-year-old German shepherd with crippled back legs, faces trial alongside a cook and a priest.

 The extraordinary case is undermining the country's attempts to end 36 years of civil war in which thousands have died. The United Nations and European Union have issued statements of concern, and an international "Free Baloo" campaign has been launched.

 Bishop Juan Gerardi, one of the leading defenders of human rights in South America, headed the Roman Catholic Church Truth Commission into atrocities carried out during the civil war. He was killed in April two days after presenting his controversial findings.

 Entitled Guatemala Nunca Mas (Guatemala Never Again), the five-volume report investigated an estimated 150,000 deaths and 50,000 people who disappeared during the country's "endless night".

 Mgr Gerardi blamed 80 per cent of the deaths - and almost all the disappearances - on the armed forces and the paramilitary death squads they sponsored. He named senior figures and said that death squads still operated even after the signing of peace agreements in December, 1996.

 Within 48 hours, the 75-year-old bishop was found dead in his garage, his body so violently battered that it was recognisable only by the ring on his finger. He is the first bishop to have been murdered in Guatemala, and the killing raised echoes of the 1980 slaying of Archbishop Oscar Romero by death squads in El Salvador.

 Mgr Gerardi was an outspoken critic of the military, and most Guatemalans believe that his murder was in direct response to his disclosures. But although witnesses said they saw vehicles with military plates leaving the scene, police closed in on 39-year-old Fr Mario Orantes, who shared the bishop's house for eight years, his dog, Baloo, and the cook, Margarita Lopez.

 In July, more than 70 armed police surrounded the house to arrest Orantes and Baloo on the basis of testimony from the Spanish forensic anthropologist Jose Manuel Reverte, who had examined photographs of the bishop's body and testified that there were dog bites on the temple and elsewhere. According to the State prosecutor, Orantes commanded Baloo to attack Mgr Gerardi, then kicked and bludgeoned him to death in a "crime of passion".

 The Roman Catholic Church rejects this version of events and, after pressure on the government, managed to get the corpse exhumed in September. Three American experts were present at the request of the Archbishop's Office on Human Rights. Although the body was in an advanced state of decomposition, all agreed that there were no dog bites on the body, and Baloo was far too old and weak to have knocked down a 6ft tall, 16st man. They also pointed out there were no pawprints leading away from the scene of the crime, though there were several sets of footprints.

 One of the experts, Dr Norman Sperber, the chief forensic dentist for San Diego and the founder of the FBI's canine evidence laboratory, said: "It was a complete charade. I have 35 years' experience with dog bites and there is no way these marks were made by a dog. The bishop was hit many times by a heavy blunt instrument and his skull crushed."

 Another, Robert Bux, the deputy chief medical examiner for San Antonio Texas, said: "The poor dog has a degenerative condition affecting his spine and limbs which means he can't run or jump. He would be incapable of attacking anyone, let alone someone with whom he lived for eight years."

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 1998

BACK to Animal Attack Files