Headlines, Human Rights, North America

RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Generals Lose Florida Torture Case

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jul 24 2002 (IPS) - A federal jury in Florida on Tuesday ordered two retired Salvadoran generals to pay 54.6 million dollars to three compatriots who were tortured by the armed forces during El Salvador’s brutal civil war in the 1980s.

Former Salvadoran defence ministers Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who retired to Florida in 1989, were found to bear responsibility for the torture of the three victims, who themselves fled to the United States after their ordeals.

The case vindicated the legal theory of “command responsibility”, a major feature of the Nuremberg trials against German Nazi and Japanese leaders after the Second World War.

“This case sets an important precedent that commanders can be held responsible when they should know that their subordinates are torturing and killing civilians and they give a green light for such abuses to continue by doing nothing to stop it,” said Joshua Sondheimer of the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA), a San Francisco-based group that prosecuted the case.

Two of the victims, Carlos Mauricio and Neris Gonzalez, reportedly wept as the verdict was read. “This is a great victory,” said Mauricio, a professor at the University of El Salvador when he was detained in June 1983 and tortured for nearly two weeks at National Police headquarters.

“In order to prevent torture, we must fight impunity, and I hope this allows other accusations to be brought against those responsible for torture,” he said.

The suit was brought under two federal laws that permit torture victims and others who have suffered serious rights abuses to sue their tormentors in federal court, even if the abuses took place in a foreign country.

Senior military officials from Guatemala, Argentina, Ethiopia, and Indonesia have won tens of millions of dollars in damages in recent years under the two laws, but in virtually every case, the defendants fled the United States before the cases could be tried.

“This was one of the very few cases where defendants have contested the case and still been found liable,” said Ken Hurwitz of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR) that helped prepare the CJA case.

LCHR lost a similar case in October 2000 against the same two defendants on behalf of the families of four U.S. churchwomen who were raped and then slain by National Guard troops in December 1980 when Garcia was Defence Minister and Vides Casanova head of the Guard.

LCHR executive director Michael Posner said he found “a kind of poetic justice” in Tuesday’s verdict.

“The four church women lived their lives with the thought that they were helping to promote justice and human rights in El Salvador, so it’s totally fitting that three Salvadoran plaintiffs were ultimately successful in winning this lawsuit. The generals are being held accountable to their own countrymen.”

Salvadoran and international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, LCHR, and Human Rights Watch, have long maintained that the notorious death squads in El Salvador, responsible for as many as 800 killings a month in the late 1970s and early ’80s, were in fact run by top armed forces commanders.

Successive Salvadoran governments and the administration of former president Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, claimed that the squads acted independently of the military, and that commanders like Garcia and Vides Casanova did their utmost to ensure the armed forces played no role in these activities.

That interpretation was repeated in this trial not only by themselves and their lead attorney but also by a former U.S. ambassador, Edwin Corr. He praised Vides in particular as “the person most responsible for helping to improve the human rights situation in El Salvador,” besides then president Jose Napoleon Duarte.

Vides was Garcia’s successor as defence minister from 1983 until 1986.

The three defendants were abducted and tortured during the four-year period from 1979 to 1983.

Gonzalez was a catechist in San Vicente in 1979 when she was detained and tortured for approximately two weeks in a National Guard post.

Although she was eight months pregnant at the time, she was subjected to electric shocks, cigarette burns, submersion in ice-cold water, and repeated rape. She was also made to witness the torture and murder of others, including a young boy. Her infant son was born with multiple injuries and died two months after his birth.

A third plaintiff, Juan Romagoza Arce, was a doctor in 1980 when he was detained and tortured for 22 days at the National Guard headquarters.

His torture included electric shock and hanging by the fingers. During one session, he was shot in his left hand as a result of which he has been unable to perform surgery.

He testified that he believed to a 90 percent certainty that Vides Casanova was present during his torture on two occasions, after hearing his voice.

All three plaintiffs arrived in the U.S. in the first half of the 1980s.

Mauricio is disabled as a result of his torture, while Gonzalez, who still suffers post-traumatic stress syndrome, co-directs ‘Ecovida’, an environmental project in a poor Hispanic neighbourhood in Chicago.

Ramagoza is executive director of ‘La Clinica del Pueblo’, which provides free health care and education services for a mainly poor, Central American neighbourhood here in Washington.

Mauricio, like the other plaintiffs, stressed that the greatest victory was vindication after so many years. “We seek justice, no money,” he said, adding, “we hope that the assets of the generals can be taken away from them in order to fulfil the punishment decreed by the jury.”

Defence lawyer Kurt Klaus told reporters that he is likely to appeal because the defendants do not have nearly enough assets to pay the judgement.

 
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