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Parliamentary visit to Guatemala surrounded by controversy

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(swissinfo.ch)

A visit to Guatemala by Swiss members of parliament this week is causing controversy following the delegation's decision to hold talks with a former dictator, and plans by two members to meet two Swiss citizens convicted of drug dealing.

Eight parliamentarians are travelling to Guatemala at the invitation of church groups, charities and development organisations to review the country's needs as it recovers from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

The one-week visit includes talks with the president, Alfonso Portillo, as well as a controversial meeting with the former dictator, Rios Montt, who is now the parliamentary speaker.

But the trip has been overshadowed by plans of two members of the delegation to visit Swiss citizens, Nicolas Hänggi and Silvio Giovanoli, who are in prison awaiting a re-trial on charges of drug smuggling.

Critics have argued that the visit might be seen as an unwelcome attempt to influence the legal process in Guatemala. The two parliamentarians who plan to visit the prisoners are Ruedi Baumann, president of the Green Party, and the Social Democrat, Erwin Jutzet.

The legal saga surrounding the case of Hänggi and Giovanoli has attracted widespread public attention in Switzerland since their arrest in August 1997. The two men, along with Hänggi's father, Andreas - the former manager of Nestlé in Guatemala - were given jail terms of between 12 and 20 years.

But irregularities in the process led to a re-trial in which Andreas Hänggi was acquitted and left the country. Nicolas Hänggi and Giovanoli had their sentences reduced, but the case has become bogged down in a series of appeals from both the convicts and the authorities.

The Swiss authorities have also been following the case closely, and have just commissioned a report from a lawyer in Guatemala to help them assess the situation.

"It has been a long case. It has taken many turns," said foreign ministry spokeswoman, Daniella Stoffel. "We felt that we needed a dense, substantial overview of events."

Despite their interest, the authorities do not want to be associated with Baumann and Jutzet's visit to the jailed Swiss. Stoffel said they would be going as private citizens and would get no more official help than any other private visitors.

Questions have also been raised about one of the scheduled meetings on the agenda of the parliamentary delegation. The eight parliamentarians will be holding talks with the man remembered as one of the most ruthless dictators in Central America: Rios Montt.

Pia Hollenstein, of the Green Party, admits having mixed feelings: "It is a strange feeling to have a meeting with him, although we will be meeting him in his capacity as speaker of parliament. But we might put some questions about the past, about what happened to victims of his regime."

by Malcolm Shearmur

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