Honduran Attorney General: Ousted President Faces Possible 20-Year Sentence

Tuesday , June 30, 2009



TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras  — 

Hondura's attorney general says ousted President Manuel Zelaya will be arrested "as soon as he puts a foot on Honduran soil."

Luis Alberto Rubi tells a news conference on Tuesday that Zelaya faces numerous charges that carry sentences "of at least 20 years in prison."

Zelaya was ousted in a coup on Sunday, but he's promising to return to the country on Thursday, escorted by other Latin American presidents.

Honduras' attorney general is independent of the president and had called for the president's removal before Congress, the Supreme Court and military to overthrow him.

The U.N. General Assembly demanded the immediate restoration of Honduras' ousted president on Tuesday, but the man who replaced him said Manuel Zelaya could be arrested if he returns home.

The U.N. vote by acclamation added to an avalanche of international denunciations of the coup that removed Zelaya on Sunday, an action that raised fears of more of the military overthrows that have scarred Latin American history.

The world body called on all 192 U.N. member states to avoid recognizing any government in Honduras other than Zelaya's.

Zelaya then thanked the assembly for the "historic" resolution that expresses "the indignation" of people worldwide.

The Organization of American States planned an emergency meeting in Washington hours later to reinforce the pressure to reinstate Zelaya, whose foes claim he was plotting with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to change the Honduran constitution in hopes of extending his rule.

The United States, which had privately expressed concerns to Zelaya about changing the constitution, has stood behind him since masked soldiers sent him, still wearing pajamas, into exile.

President Barack Obama said Zelaya remains "the democratically elected president."

"It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections," Obama said Monday.

Zelaya also got support from Latin American leaders in Nicaragua on Monday, and said OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza had agreed to accompany him back to Honduras on Thursday.

But the man Honduras' Congress named as interim president, Roberto Micheletti, said Zelaya risks arrest if he returns because "the courts of my country have issued arrest orders."

Micheletti, speaking to Colombia's Caracol Radio on Tuesday, insisted it was Zelaya who had violated the constitution and that his court-ordered removal was legal.

"We have not committed a coup d'etat, but a constitutional succession," he said.

About 5,000 anti-Zelaya demonstrators gathered at a main plaza in Tegucigalpa on Tuesday to celebrate his ouster.

"Freedom has won, peace has triumphed, Honduras has won," newly appointed deputy foreign minister Marta Lorena Casco told the crowd. She said Zelaya had planned to make the country a socialist pawn. "Chavez consumed Venezuela, then Bolivia, after that Ecuador and Nicaragua, but in Honduras that didn't happen," she said.

Soldiers and police set up a chain link fence before dawn to seal off the area in front of the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa, preventing a repeat of Monday's clashes in which security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse pro-Zelaya protesters who were throwing rocks and bottles.

Some local television stations remained off the air and local media carried few reports of any demonstrations in Zelaya's favor.

At least 38 pro-Zelaya protesters were detained, said Sandra Ponce, a government human rights official.

Congresswoman Silvia Ayala said she counted 30 injured at a single Tegucigalpa hospital and an Associated Press photographer in another area close to the palace saw protesters carrying away five injured people.

"In the name of God, in the name of the people, stop repressing the people," Zelaya said in Nicaragua, urging soldiers to return to their barracks.

Zelaya said more than 150 people were injured and 50 were arrested but added that he didn't "have exact figures, because I'm not there."

Mexico and Colombia's conservative governments joined the region's leftist leaders in condemning Zelaya's removal, and the nation's Central American neighbors began a 48-hour ban trade ban.

Chavez urged a rebellion by the Honduran people, and vowed to halt shipments of subsidized oil, though Honduras gets most of its oil from other sources.

"I'll do everything possible to overthrow this gorilla government of Honduras. It must be overthrown," the socialist leader said Monday. "The rebellion in Honduras must be supported."

The OAS was considering suspending Honduras under an agreement meant to prevent the coups that for generations spawned military dictatorships in Latin America.

Micheletti vowed to ignore foreign pressure and began naming Cabinet members, including a new minister of defense. But he also told Caracol Radio that he would leave office after serving out the final seven months of Zelaya's term.

The U.S. military, which has close ties with the Honduran military leaders, tried to avoid getting caught up in the dispute.

The more than 800 U.S. military personnel at the Honduran Soto Cano air base were restricted to base except for "mission-essential" tasks such as flying helicopters to the hospital ship Comfort, which is on a humanitarian mission in Nicaragua, said Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for the U.S. military's Southern Command, based in Miami.

The base, 60 miles from the capital, is used for counternarcotics, disaster relief and medical and civil engineering missions.

Zelaya, a wealthy rancher, alienated the courts, Congress, the military and even his own party in his tumultuous three years in power but maintains the support of many of Honduras' poor.

Sunday's ouster was the first military power grab in Latin America since a brief, failed 2002 coup against Chavez.

Coups were common in Central America until the 1980s, but Honduras had not seen a coup since 1978, when one military government overthrew another.