Honduras’ Supreme Court ruled that an inmate who saved hundreds of people from the Comayagua prison fire cannot be granted early release, even though the president promised to pardon him.
Marco Antonio Bonilla may have saved as many as 250 inmates from the fire when he stayed behind to unlock the prison cells, he told the Associated Press. The Valentine’s Day fire killed 360 inmates, and shone a spotlight on the grisly conditions in Honduras’ prison system. While prison guards where panicking,·Bonilla·grabbed a set of keys to open locks, and used a bench to smash down doors and save prisoners from the flames, according to a report in the Guardian.
On Tuesday President Porfirio Lobo said that he would pardon Bonilla, for taking “incredible risks to try and save lives.”
But a Supreme Court spokesperson said that under the Honduran penal code, Bonilla cannot be pardoned or granted early release because he was convicted of serious crimes, including a murder charge in 1997 and another in 2006. He was also convicted of robbery that year. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison and has served slightly over half.
Fifty-year-old Bonilla, who worked as a nurse in the jail, told El Heraldo, “If they want to let me go free, let them, I’ve already decided to pay my time.”
“It’s better not to have illusions,” he added.
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Bonilla could still see a pardon if Congress changes the constitution and penal code, which would allow inmates convicted of serious crimes to receive pardons from the president.
According to El Heraldo, the executive branch received 358 requests for a pardon last year. But pardons and conditional liberty are rarely granted. Currently there are some 540 inmates in Honduras petitioning for an early release, El Heraldo reports.
As the Guardian points out, Bonilla has became a hero for Hondurans because so few other actors involved in the tragedy — prison guards, firefighters, and authorities responsible for identifying the bodies — demonstrated competence. Part of the legal issue seems to be whether President Lobo can still grant Bonilla a pardon, even if the Supreme Court rules against it.