The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, May 06, 2002  

Amnesty International: Military Thugs Threaten Volunteer Near Home in U.S.

A volunteer human rights monitor with Amnesty International may, if her stories hold up, be the victim of threats and intimidation by Guatemalans with military connections operating in the U.S.

In a report written by David Gonzalez and carried in today's edition of the New York Times, the story begins with Amesty International, the human rights advocacy organization, late last month alerting its members to threats made on the life of Barbara Bocek, a volunteer for the group living and working in Guatemala since 1997.

In March, Bocek, whose work for A.I. included reporting on renewed political violence alleged to have occurred in Guatemala during the last five years, allegedly left bound, gagged, and blindfolded in her car by two men who said she would die if she returned to Guatemala. The attack was attributed to "a deadly network of former military officials."

In a surprise twist, the attack occurred not in Central America but near Bocek's home in Washington State. Unfortunately for Bocek -- and A.I. -- police officials who investigated the alleged attack said the evidence did not support Bocek's account. The case is no longer under investigation.

"I think it was staged"

"'I think it was staged,' said Detective Randy Pieper of the Clallam County Sheriff's Office, according to the Times. "'I'm positive,'" he added.

"Officials at Amnesty International U.S.A., the American branch of the organization that put out the alert, said this weekend that they had no reason to doubt Ms. Bocek's credibility or her account," according to Gonzalez's story. "'Amnesty International takes every report on alleged human rights abuses extremely seriously,'" the Times quotes Charles Brown, a deputy executive director at Amnesty U.S.A. "'When one of our own people receives threats, we are going to take that particularly seriously.'"

Bocek is standing by her account. "No, I am not making this up," she told the Times. "Why would anybody make it up? I am not looking for publicity."

Bocek complained in the past about more than a dozen alleged threats she received in Guatemala and the U.S. during the past 12 months. "A chronology compiled by Amnesty shows that the reported threats against Ms. Bocek began in May of last year, about a week after she wrote an opinion piece for the Baltimore Sun," Gonzales writes. The article focused on the trial of Guatemalan military officers for the murder of a Bishop Juan Gerardi, a vocal advocate of human rights.

The threats on Bocek, according to her own account, included an attempted abduction by gunmen at the Camino Real hotel in Guatemala City on June 11. Manuel Ríos, the manager of the hotel, declined to provide details about the incident to the Times, other than easily the most salient of points: "Everything points to her having done a self-kidnapping." Since that aborted "kidnapping," Bocek reported receiving calls and finding threatening notes and "a strange knife" in her Washington home.

Now, anyone who has watched "Law and Order" knows that law-enforcement agencies can with little difficulty obtain any person's "local usage details," or LUDs. Bocek's LUDs would show whether or not she received the telephone threats she has discussed -- or at least whether she received any phone calls on the days in question. We're not surprised the police haven't raised this issue publicly, but we suspect it may be a primary factor behind their lack of interest in pursuing the case.

Despite the perceived threat to her person, Bocet returned to Guatemala on March 7 to give a statement about the alleged attempted kidnapping at the Camino Real. The attack that sparked A.I.'s "Urgent Action Bulletin" occurred shortly thereafter.

Bocek's Account of the Attempted Abduction

Shortly after returning to the U.S., Bocek claims she pulled off the road to check a noisy tire as she was driving home from work. While examining the tire, Bocek said she was approached by another vehicle from which two men emerged.

Bocek's account deserves to be quoted at length:

"The first thing they said was 'If you go to Guate-mala you will not return,' she said, adding that the two men spoke Spanish with the accents of Guatemalan natives.

"'I would have said anything to keep them from hurting me,' she said. 'But they stuffed a gag in my mouth. They didn't give me time to say anything. When they did that, I felt one of my teeth break.'

"She said she did not look at the men, out of fear. They pushed her to the ground, tied her hands with wire behind her and then tied them to her feet, which were taped together. They left her bound in the car....

"Deputy Brian King of the Clallam County Sheriff's Department said he came across Ms. Bocek's car around midnight, and broke the driver's window to open the door and free her. But, he said, she did not appear to be tied tightly, and her gag was neatly covered with strips of electrical tape.

"'If you saw the way her feet were done, it was basically one or two passes of electrical tape which you could pull apart if you were there for four hours,' Deputy King said....

"Investigators who examined the scene said they could not find any marks on the grass or gravel to show more than one person walking around Ms. Bocek's vehicle. They said the only other tire tracks they found appeared to indicate that Ms. Bocek had backed up her own vehicle 100 feet....

"Deputy King added that Ms. Bocek's recollection of the sequence of events quickly grew vague. 'It is like she has no desire to help us find the bad guys,' he said, 'to even give us a hint or a clue. She did everything in her power not to be able to identify these people."

Bocek maintains the sheriff's office never told her of their doubts about her account. "'If he had all these doubts about me, why didn't he just ask me? All I can do is say what happened. I can't force anybody to believe it,'" Bocek told the Times.

Bocek plans to cooperate with Guatemalan authorities but says she won't travel to that country. She added that the experience enhanced her appreciation faced by human-rights workers there. "Now that it has happened to me," she said, "I know what they are going through all the more," she told the Times.

What are we to make of this? It could be the absolute truth or it could be an embellished or dramatized truth. Or, perhaps it is an outright fabrication. If so, one wonders what Bocek's motives might be: sympathy for herself, a desperate search for attention, self-victimization, or hopes for greater attention to the unrest in Guatemala and her role in documenting that violence.

As of this morning, there were no comment about the threats or the FBI's case at Amnesty International web site.

In the meantime: Al Sharpton, please call your office.

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