CAMBRIDGE, MASS., JUNE 6 — Hector Alejandro Gramajo, former defense minister of Guatemala, was confronted today outside the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and served with U.S. court papers charging him with flagrant human-rights abuses in his country.
A short time later, the retired army general received a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School, where he completed a year of study in a “mid-career” program that has brought dozens of likely future leaders here from developing nations.
Gramajo was greeted with scattered boos, but the controversy caused barely a ripple as Harvard observed its 340th commencement with a farewell address by President Derek Bok, who is retiring after 20 years.
Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet foreign minister until his abrupt resignation last December, was awarded an honorary degree today and urged nuclear disarmament.
Gramajo, considered a likely candidate for his nation’s presidency in 1995, received a summons to appear in U.S. District Court in Boston to answer charges in a lawsuit drafted by the Center for Constitutional Rights based in New York.
Gramajo is being sued in a civil case by nine Guatemalans who live in California and allege that he planned and carried out a program of political terrorism in the early 1980s designed to neutralize potential critics of the government through a campaign of torture, kidnapping, executions and forced exile.
From 1987 until his retirement last May, Gramajo served as defense minister, and the suit charges that “military personnel under his direction and control continued to employ murders, disappearance and torture to eliminate and intimidate potential opponents of the government and to cover up army responsibility for these abuses.”
Gramajo, 50, had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. Dressed in academic regalia, he brushed aside reporters who tried to talk with him after the commencement ceremony.
According to attorneys for the Center for Constitutional Rights, Gramajo is being sued under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a longstanding federal statute used with some success in recent years by human-rights groups. Under its terms, aliens living in the United States can use federal courts to seek remedies for harm done them by compatriots.
Attorney Michael Ratner said the law has been used several times in recent years, although he acknowledged that U.S. courts are limited in their ability to force defendants to appear and pay damages.
In Gramajo’s case, Ratner said, the plaintiffs are seeking damages and to draw attention to Gramajo’s record as a military commander, perhaps discrediting him as a potential presidential candidate. In addition, he said, if Gramajo leaves the country without answering the suit, immigration officials could ban him from reentering.
Ratner criticized Harvard for allowing Gramajo to earn a degree. “I think this gives him a color of legitimacy that a torturer should not have,” he said. Asked about such criticism, Robert Putnam, outgoing dean of the Kennedy School, said he “never comments about students.”
Gramajo is credited with defending civilian rule in Guatemala against repeated military coup attempts. He has been criticized by Guatemalan rightists for supporting a Christian Democratic government.