Leader’s Ouster Not a Coup, Says the Honduran Military
By MARC LACEY NY Times
Published: July 1, 2009
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Flipping through a stack of legal opinions and holding up a detention order signed by a Supreme Court judge, the chief lawyer of the Honduran armed forces insisted that what soldiers carried out over the weekend when they detained President Manuel Zelaya was no coup d’état.
“A coup is a political move,” the lawyer, Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza Membreño, said Tuesday night in an interview. “It requires the armed forces to assume power over the country, which didn’t happen, and it has to break the rule of law, which didn’t happen either.”
Governments around the world have decided differently, labeling Mr. Zelaya’s removal an illegal act and calling for his prompt return to power. On Monday, the day after the coup, President Obama said, “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there.”
Colonel Bayardo, dressed in green camouflage and wearing a blue beret, described a behind-the-scenes struggle between the armed forces and Mr. Zelaya that played out over the weeks before the decision to grab the president from his home, shuttle him to a military base and fly him out of the country.
The army had resisted participating in a nonbinding referendum on constitutional changes that Mr. Zelaya continued to push after both Congress and the courts had labeled the president’s move unconstitutional. Army lawyers were convinced that Mr. Zelaya was moving to lift a provision limiting presidents to a single term in office, Colonel Bayardo said.
When the army refused an order to help organize the referendum, the president fired the commander of the armed forces, Gen. Romeo Vásquez. He was reinstated by the Supreme Court, which found his removal illegal.
The detention order, signed June 26 by a Supreme Court judge, ordered the armed forces to detain the president, identified by his full name, José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, at his home in the Tres Caminos area of Tegucigalpa, the capital. It accused him of treason and abuse of authority, among other charges.
“It was a clean operation,” Colonel Bayardo said, dismissing Mr. Zelaya’s remarks before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday in which he described the arrest as a brutal coup. “It was a fast operation. It was over in minutes, and there were no injuries, no deaths. We said, ‘Sir, we have a judicial order to detain you.’ We did it with respect.”
Mr. Zelaya has challenged the legality of his ouster, telling reporters that whatever missteps he might have made did not justify his being put on a plane and sent out of the country.
“If I do something illegal, take me to court and give me the right to a defense,” he said. “But do not use the army to kidnap the president and carry him violently out of the country.”
Colonel Bayardo defended the president’s expulsion, saying there was a last-minute decision to send him out of the country, to lower tensions and prevent violence.
Two days before Mr. Zelaya’s removal, military leaders met with Roberto Micheletti, the leader of Congress at the time and now the interim president, to discuss what was viewed as a constitutional crisis, Colonel Bayardo said. But it was not until the day before the raid that everything came into place with a flurry of secret meetings involving army and civilian lawyers as well as a small group of political leaders. About 11 p.m. Saturday, the detention order reached the army’s top command, Colonel Bayardo said. It was carried out early the next morning.
Colonel Bayardo said a tight circle of people knew about the raid, and they did not include any American military or civilian leaders or other foreigners. “We had no obligation to inform the U.S.,” he said.