Police Doubts About Attack Cast Cloud on Rights Group
MIAMI - The alert from Amnesty International flashed across the Internet, warning that an American human rights worker monitoring Guatemala was facing threats to her life.
Calling for "urgent action," the bulletin of April 25 said that Barbara Bocek, who had reported for the international watchdog organization since 1997, had been left bound, gagged and blindfolded in her car by two men who said she would die if she returned to the Central American country.
The Amnesty appeal set off an unusual alarm because it said Ms. Bocek was attacked not in Guatemala, but near her home in Washington State. At a time when human rights workers are under increasing attack in Guatemala, one of the most respected international human rights organizations was alleging that thugs linked to a deadly network of former military officials there were operating on American soil.
But police officers in Washington who investigated said the evidence did not support Ms. Bocek's account. They are not pursuing the case.
"I think it was staged," said Detective Randy Pieper of the Clallam County Sheriff's Office Major Crimes Unit. "I'm positive."
The doubts American law enforcement officers raised about Ms. Bocek's claims represent an important challenge for Amnesty. The group, founded in 1961, bases its reputation on dispassionate investigation of rights violations around the world. Governments whose abuses are exposed by Amnesty and other rights monitors frequently seek to defend themselves by accusing the groups of political bias and inaccurate reporting.
In Guatemala, during a three-decade civil war in which 200,000 people were killed, Amnesty doggedly defended rights workers and rallied its members to demand justice from the government, especially for mass killings of civilians by the rightist military. Ms. Bocek's work included reporting on a resurgence of violence in recent years, after peace accords in 1996.
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. The officials said they stood by their warning about the perils she was facing, but were continuing to investigate her case.
"Amnesty International takes every report on alleged human rights abuses extremely seriously," said 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."
Mr. Brown said the alert about Ms. Bocek was based largely on her description of threats. Amnesty officials acknowledged that they had not spoken with the police in Washington and were unaware that the police had doubts.
In nearly three hours of telephone interviews in recent days, Ms. Bocek also stood by her account.
"No, I am not making this up," she said calmly. She has left her home and was speaking from an undisclosed location, citing security concerns. "Why would anybody make it up? I am not looking for publicity."
Ms. Bocek has told American local and federal law enforcement authorities of some 15 threats she said she had received in the United States since May last year. Last month, Amnesty highlighted her work at their annual meeting in Seattle, praising her dedication.
An official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has been involved in Ms. Bocek's case since last May, said the case was active and would not comment on it.
Ms. Bocek, 48, said she had a doctorate in anthropology from Stanford and moved to Guatemala in 1992 to work with the Peace Corps and later other social projects in Mayan villages. She became a volunteer country specialist for Amnesty in 1997 after she moved, for family reasons, to Washington state, where she works with a local Indian tribe. Amnesty has about 100 unpaid specialists who monitor human rights part time around the world.
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, focusing on the trial of Guatemalan military officers for the murder of a Roman Catholic bishop, Juan Gerardi, who was a leading human rights advocate.
On June 11, Ms. Bocek said, gunmen tried to abduct her from the Camino Real hotel in Guatemala City. After that, she reported receiving calls and finding threatening notes and a strange knife in her Washington home.
Nonetheless, she agreed on March 7 to return to Guatemala to give a statement to prosecutors about the attempted abduction.
Three days later, Ms. Bocek said, she was driving home from her office just after 7 p.m. when she pulled over to check out a noise from the right front wheel of her car. She said that while she crouched on the gravel and moss along the narrow shoulder, a car with its lights off pulled up.
"The first thing they said was `If you go to Guatemala 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.
"The last thing they said was, `When and if you get loose, we'll be a long way away,' " she said.
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.
Ms. Bocek was taken to a hospital, where she was examined by doctors and interviewed by one of Deputy King's colleagues. She declined to stay at a women's shelter and went home, 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.
"Unless they can levitate, we can't find anything consistent with that many people milling around," Detective Pieper said.
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."
Ms. Bocek said no one from the sheriff's office informed her of their questions. "If he had all these doubts about me, why didn't he just ask me?" Ms. Bocek said. "All I can do is say what happened. I can't force anybody to believe it."
A summary of a psychological evaluation of Ms. Bocek done late last year by Judy Okawa, a clinical psychologist in Falls Church, Va., who directs a program for torture survivors, concluded that she had authentic symptoms of trauma. The summary, provided by Amnesty officials, said her account of the threats she received seemed credible.
Reports of Ms. Bocek's attempted abduction in Guatemala last year generated outrage among human rights advocates. Ms. Bocek told authorities there that two men took her at gunpoint from her hotel room and bound her with medical tape in a stairway, leaving her with the promise to return.
Francisco Soberón, a member of the Amnesty delegation staying at the hotel, said he discovered Ms. Bocek bound and groggy in the stairwell.
"I am convinced and can reaffirm to anyone what I saw," he said in a telephone interview from Peru.
Manuel Ríos, the resident manager of the Camino Real Hotel, recalled the incident but declined to provide details. But he did say, "Everything points to her having done a self-kidnapping."
Ms. Bocek said she remains willing to cooperate with authorities in Guatemala but will not travel there. She said her experiences gave her a new appreciation of the dangers faced by rights workers in the country.
"Now that it has happened to me," she said, "I know what they are going through all the more."