War crimes suspect appears in court

CALGARY — There was heavy security in a courtroom Thursday for the appearance of a man accused of gruesome war crimes in Guatemala nearly 30 years ago.

CALGARY — There was heavy security in a courtroom Thursday for the appearance of a man accused of gruesome war crimes in Guatemala nearly 30 years ago.

Jorge Vinicio Orantes Sosa, 52, had his hands and feet shackled and was accompanied by three guards as authorities in Calgary took the first step to extradite him to the United States.

Sosa, wearing black jeans and a black, long-sleeved T-shirt, made no comment. The matter was put over to Jan. 27.

The master karate instructor has both Canadian and American citizenship and is charged in the U.S. for making a false statement relating to naturalization and unlawful procurement of citizenship or naturalization. He was arrested in Lethbridge, Alta., on Tuesday while visiting relatives.

Sosa is also wanted by Guatemalan authorities for allegedly participating in attacks on a village in 1982 in which 251 men, women and children were massacred.

His lawyer, Alain Hepner, said he was retained by the family Wednesday night and needed to read up on the case.

“I’ll take steps to interview the client and determine what the facts are. I’ll also speak to the assigned Crown from the Attorney General’s Department and see what the next step should be,” said Hepner.

The lawyer said he was taken aback to see his client shackled.

“I was surprised in a courtroom like this with three sheriffs there, but I don’t know the background yet.”

Hepner said the fact that Sosa has Canadian citizenship will affect the approach Hepner takes. He said it is likely to take months before extradition is complete.

An arrest warrant for murder was issued in Guatemala years ago for Sosa, who was most recently a resident of Riverside, Calif. The warrant alleges he participated in attacks in 1982 on the village of Las Dos Erres where 251 men, women and children were brutally massacred.

The attack came during the Guatemalan civil war and under the de facto presidency of Gen. Efrain Rios Montt.

An indictment by the United States District Court for the Central District of California alleges that Sosa was the commanding officer of a patrol sent to the village.

“The special patrol proceeded to systematically kill the men, women and children at Dos Erres by, among other methods, hitting them in the head with a sledgehammer and throwing them into a well,” reads the indictment obtained by The Canadian Press.

“Members of the special patrol also forcibly raped many of the women and girls before killing them,” says the document. “Defendant Jorge Sosa participated in the crimes committed at Dos Erres including, but not limited to, murder.”

Sosa is also accused of lying on his application for naturalization and citizenship when he said he had never committed any crime or offence and was not a member of a foreign military.

Manuel Salazar, a freelance photographer who moved to Canada in the 1970s, was one of the few spectators in the courtroom.

“For most Guatemalans, that part of history of the country is quite dark,” he said.

Salazar expressed his disappointment that Sosa was able to procure a Canadian passport.

“I think the Canadian passport is perhaps so easy to obtain it might not have the same value it once did … this man was able to go through the system and manage to get a U.S. passport and a Canadian passport and a Guatemalan passport.

“You wonder.”