Honduras judge clears generals

TEGUCIGALPA: A Supreme Court judge cleared Honduras' military commanders Tuesday in the coup that toppled Manuel Zelaya, and hours later lawmakers approved amnesty for the ousted leader and all those involved in his removal.

The two measures — combined with Wednesday's inauguration of a new president, conservative rancher Porfirio Lobo — appeared to spell the last chapter in the bitter political dispute that led to Honduras' international isolation.

Supreme Court President Jorge Rivera ruled the country's top generals did not abuse their power in ordering soldiers to escort Zelaya out of the country at gunpoint June 28.

"Prosecutors failed to prove the military chiefs acted with malice," he said in a statement.

The prosecution's case did not question Zelaya's ouster itself — only whether the six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went too far in flying him to Costa Rica after he was arrested by soldiers in a dispute over a constitutional referendum.

Those charged included the head of the armed forces, Gen. Romeo Vasquez, and five other top-ranking officers, including the air force chief, Gen. Javier Prince, and the navy commander, Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez. The abuse of power charge carries a sentence of three to six years in prison.

Rivera said in his ruling that the commanders were justified in sending Zelaya into exile because their actions were aimed at preserving peace in Honduras and they did not intend to cause the leftist president any harm.

Late Tuesday, Congress approved an amnesty for all those involved in the coup as well as for pending charges against Zelaya.

The body voted along party lines, with Zelaya's Liberal Party abstaining and Lobo's National Party voting in favor.

The amnesty, expected to take effect Wednesday, freed the military and other forces of any legal responsibility in the coup, and absolved Zelaya of charges of treason and abuse of power stemming from his campaign to change the constitution, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had ruled his plans for a referendum illegal.

Zelaya sneaked back into the country in September to reclaim the presidency and finish out his term, but has been holed up in the Brazilian Embassy since then, facing the threat of arrest if he leaves.

A deal has been brokered for Zelaya's safe passage into exile Wednesday, the day Lobo is sworn in.

With the threat of arrest eliminated by the amnesty, Zelaya could apparently leave the embassy at will Wednesday.

But Honduran chief prosecutor Luis Alberto Rubi said Saturday that he was investigating Zelaya for allegedly embezzling at least $1.5 million in government funds. Such a charge would apparently not be covered by the amnesty.

Zelaya is scheduled to travel to the Dominican Republic as a private citizen Wednesday under an accord signed by Lobo and Dominican President Leonel Fernandez.

Lobo said he would accompany Fernandez to the embassy when Zelaya exits the diplomatic mission. "Can you imagine starting a term with a president locked up in an embassy ... that is not fair for a president," Lobo said.

Lobo said at a news conference Tuesday that he believes the United States will re-establish normal relations with Honduras as soon as he is sworn into office and that he is confident other countries will soon follow suit.

"With the United States, starting tomorrow everything will be normalized ... they are going to state that to me officially tomorrow, when I am president," Lobo said.

The U.S. Embassy in Honduras had no immediate comment on that claim.

Only the presidents of three other countries are scheduled to attend the inauguration: Taiwan, Panama and the Dominican Republic.