U.S. Army personnel unknowingly violated guidelines by lending a jeep and driver to the Honduran Army on Sunday to transport a U.S. priest whom the Hondurans had detained, U.S. officials said today.
A U.S. official said that guidelines "absolutely" prohibit use of U.S. military vehicles to carry U.S. citizens detained by Honduran authorities. But he emphasized that the U.S. Army personnel, who are in Honduras for training maneuvers, were unaware that the Roman Catholic priest was under arrest when they made the vehicle available.
The Honduran military released the priest, the Rev. John Donald, 46, Tuesday evening after interrogating him for two days about allegations that he was helping to organize left-wing guerrilla cells in Yoro province north of here. He denied the allegations and was not formally charged.
Donald said after his release that he had received nothing to eat and little to drink during his detention, that he was kept blindfolded and handcuffed for much of the time, and that he was prevented from sleeping. He characterized his treatment as "psychological torture" but said that he was not injured physically.
The U.S. government, clearly embarrassed by the incident, has expressed its "concerns" to Honduran authorities, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said. The State Department said yesterday that it would "protest the conditions of his detention at the highest level if warranted."
Honduran officers took Donald to the gate of a temporary military base, nicknamed Camp Bulldog, in the town of San Lorenzo, 95 miles north of here on Sunday evening soon after arresting him. While Donald waited outside for an hour, the Hondurans borrowed a U.S. jeep and driver to travel to a Honduran air base at Macora 11 miles south of San Lorenzo, according to both the priest and the U.S. Embassy. The priest was interrogated at Macora, and later flown to the city of San Pedro Sula and then to Tegucigalpa on Monday evening.
"The rented taxi that the Hondurans had could not make it up the hill" from San Lorenzo to Macora, the embassy spokesman said. "Father Donald did not appear at that time to be a prisoner."
During the drive to Macora, the priest told the American driver, an Army private, that he had been detained. The priest asked the private to notify the U.S. Army chaplain at Camp Bulldog that he was in trouble.
The private, when he returned to camp told his superior officer about the priest's predicament. Efforts were made to find the chaplain, but he was not on the base, and the matter was dropped, the embassy said.
U.S. officials said the U.S. military personnel had violated guidelines in failing to follow up on reporting the priest's detention as well as in lending the vehicle and driver.
Donald, a Jesuit, has lived in Yoro province since 1980 and worked primarily with Jicaque Indians there. He said he believed he was picked up because of complaints from local cattle ranchers that he was encouraging the Indians to protest ill treatment by the ranchers. Donald said his military interrogators brought in a rancher, Luis Rufino, who made allegations against him during the detention.
Honduran press reports said the priest also has spoken out against the U.S. military presence in Honduras and specifically against establishing the temporary base at San Lorenzo.