An article Jan. 21 on "Honduras on Trial in Rights Court" incorrectly stated that Guatemala had reserved the right, case by case, to decide whether to accept the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Human Rights Court. Guatemala, in joining the court on March 9, 1987, accepted without condition its jurisdiction in cases of alleged violations occurring since that date. (Published 2/11/88)

SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA, JAN. 20 -- Francisco Fairen Almengor gripped his cane with both hands and struggled to keep his composure after describing his efforts to find his son, who "disappeared" six years ago while driving to Mexico with a woman companion.

A frail, stooped man of 67 who walks with difficulty, Fairen told a human rights court, unique in the hemisphere, yesterday how his search had led him into the netherworld of one of Latin America's lesser-known "dirty wars." Lawyer Juan Mendez of Americas Watch, who is assisting the prosecution, said 137 persons had disappeared in Honduras in the 1981-84 period in question.

"It is a terrible experience that there is no way to recover his remains," Fairen said. "I feel such an emptiness." His voice rising in anger and tears welling in his eyes, he added, "This emptiness is the worst crime they have committed against us."

The testimony before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights came in a landmark case in which, for the first time, a government is on trial for "forced disappearances" attributed to its security forces.

In this case, the Honduran government is accused of responsibility for the disappearances in 1981 and 1982 of two Costa Ricans and two Hondurans, whom prosecutors charge were killed by a secret Honduran military intelligence unit and death squad called Battalion 316.

Honduras denies the charges, arguing that prosecution witnesses are not credible, that there is no evidence Honduran authorities were responsible for the disappearances and that some of the alleged victims may be in Nicaragua, Cuba or the Soviet Union.

In testimony today, police officers Alexander Hernandez and Marco Tulio Regalado Hernandez, who have been accused of death-squad activity, denied involvement in torture, disappearances or intelligence work.

Recent developments, however, suggest that Honduran death squads may still be operating. So far, two of 16 witnesses in the case have been killed, two others have received death threats, and an Army deserter who gave secret testimony to a Honduran human rights group has died under mysterious circumstances.

Another witness, a former sergeant in Battalion 316 named Florencio Caballero, has testified that he received training in interrogation techniques at a secret site he believed to be a U.S. military base in Texas. Others connected with the case have charged outside the court that CIA officers and U.S. military advisers in Honduras knew that Battalion 316 tortured and murdered suspected subversives, but did nothing about it.

Caballero has been one of the strongest prosecution witnesses, implicating senior Honduran military officers in the alleged death-squad activity. Another key witness in the case was Ines Consuelo Murillo, a lawyer who testified she was tortured, raped and held incommunicado during 80 days of detention in clandestine military jails in 1983.

The trial of the Honduran government in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, a judicial arm of the Organization of American States, began in April 1986 and is expected to conclude this week. However, a verdict may not be handed down until midyear, court officials said.

Although the court was established in September 1979, it has been limited until now to giving advisory opinions. This is largely because Honduras is one of the few countries in Latin America to have accepted the jurisdiction of the court without reservations. The United States, a founding OAS member, has not adhered to the Human Rights Convention or the court.

While El Salvador and Guatemala have been accused of far more human rights violations than Honduras, involving the disappearances of tens of thousands of persons, they have reserved the right to decide whether the Inter-American Court has jurisdiction on a case-by-case basis. Nicaragua and Panama also have refused to accept the court's compulsory jurisdiction.

The case against Honduras concerns the disappearance in December 1981 of Costa Ricans bank employee Francisco Fairen Garbi and teacher Yolanda Solis Corrales, both 27, as they drove north to Mexico.

Two other disappearances included in the case involve Hondurans who allegedly were kidnaped by security forces. Saul Godinez Cruz, 32, a teacher, disappeared July 22, 1982, and Angel Manfredo Velasquez, 35, a student leader and union organizer, vanished Sept. 12, 1981.

Human rights officials say they believe Honduran security authorities suspected the four of being leftists helping Marxist-led guerrillas in neighboring El Salvador.

Fairen testified yesterday that his son had not been a member of any political movement. He said that after making inquiries at the Honduran Embassy here, an embassy employee who refused to identify himself had given him a newspaper clipping with a photograph of two "guerrillas" killed in combat with Honduran troops. He said he was sure one of them was his son.

As he sat before a panel of seven judges under a ceiling fan in the chapel-like courtroom, Fairen said he then traveled to Honduras, where his search led him to a filthy morgue that received the bodies of unknown persons. He said a cursory autopsy report at the morgue gave details of the alleged guerrilla that corresponded to physical characteristics of his son, but that the body had been buried in an unmarked grave and efforts to obtain an exhumation were fruitless.

Fairen said he later went to a remote ravine about 12 miles southeast of the capital, Tegucigalpa, where residents said bodies were commonly dumped. He said he saw fresh blood on the edge of the ravine, but saw no bodies and never found the remains of his son.

Although the Honduran government has been cooperating in the trial, human rights lawyers say the Honduran commitment to the court is being called into question by murders and intimidation of witnesses.

On Jan. 14, an unknown gunman on a motorcycle assassinated the vice president of the Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, Miguel Angel Pavon, and a friend, Moises Landaverde, as they chatted in a car in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula. The president of the committee, Ramon Custodio Lopez, said the style of the murders was similar to three other suspected death-squad killings there.

Pavon was the first witness to appear in the case against Honduras, testifying that a pattern of disappearances had been virtually ignored by governmental, military and judicial authorities.

Nine days earlier, Jose Isaias Vilorio, an ex-Army sergeant who has been accused in court here of involvement in a Battalion 316 death squad, was gunned down while waiting for a bus in a Tegucigalpa suburb. Before fleeing, the assailants screamed that Vilorio was a "murderer" as they dragged his body into the street and draped a banner of the Cinchonero leftist guerrilla group over it.

Vilorio, who at the time of his death was employed by the National Directorate of Investigation, a police intelligence unit, had been scheduled to testify before the court yesterday. In a press release Jan. 6, the human rights group Americas Watch said that "the killing appears to be part of a campaign of violence and intimidation against witnesses called before the Inter-American Court." Americas Watch suggested the Honduran military was responsible.

Custodio, the head of the Honduran human rights committee, said he shared this view at first, but now is no longer sure who killed Vilorio. He said in an interview here that the lack of a denial by the Cinchoneros has led him to believe they actually may have been the real perpetrators, in which case the killing "was not only an inhuman act but a political mistake, depriving the court of one of its main witnesses."

The day before Vilorio was killed, the body of Joselito Aguilera Cordoba, a military deserter, was brought to a morgue by a contingent of soldiers. An officer said the death was a military accident, but journalists were prevented from viewing the body. Less than two months before, Aguilera had given secret testimony to Custodio's rights group about the military.