Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Amnesty a ‘Monument to Impunity’ Say Activists

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Oct 12 2007 (IPS) - Human rights activists in El Salvador said they were "indignant over and ashamed of" the government’s presentation to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) this week, which described the country’s peace process as a success and the amnesty law as a "contribution to national reconciliation."

The amnesty law passed after the 1992 peace agreement that put an end to El Salvador’s 12-year civil war "has fulfilled its mission, and has closed the wounds," said Oscar Santamaría, one of the government representatives who addressed the Organisation of American States (OAS) commission during a hearing this week in Washington.

Salvador Samayoa, another member of the official delegation to the IACHR’s period of sessions, concurred, saying the amnesty law "made the peace process viable."

The Salvadoran government was asked by the OAS commission to respond to demands by human rights groups that the amnesty law be repealed, and to activists’ complaints of a setback in the peace process and the poor functioning of the country’s justice system.

The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said in a statement that the peace talks and amnesty made possible "the reconciliation of society" and paved the way for "fast, sustained democratic development…on the social, political, economic and cultural fronts."

The United Nations-sponsored peace agreement was signed in 1992 in Mexico by the government of then president Alfredo Cristiani and the insurgent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The 1980-1992 armed conflict left 75,000 people – mainly civilians – dead, 8,000 "disappeared" and 50,000 permanently disabled.

In March 1993, Cristiani decreed an amnesty that benefited a large number of members of the military accused of human rights crimes by the Truth Commission, which was created by the peace accord to investigate human rights abuses and identify the perpetrators.

The amnesty law also benefited leaders of the FMLN, which had become a legal political party and is currently the main opposition party.

Santamaría headed the government committee that negotiated the peace agreement, and Samayoa is a former member of the FMLN who abandoned the leftist party over a decade ago and became a public security adviser to the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which has governed the country since 1989.

The hearing in Washington was broadcast live in a forum held by the Comité de Trabajo en Derechos Humanos Promemoria Histórica, a local human rights group, where participants expressed indignation when the government delegates insisted that 15 years on, the peace process should be held up as an example for the international community.

During the forum on "incompliance with El Salvador’s peace process on the human rights front", organised to present a viewpoint contrasting with the official stance depicted in the IACHR hearing, Judge Sidney Blanco said the government’s declarations do not reflect reality in the least.

Blanco acknowledged some advances brought about by the peace process, such as a more democratic system for the selection of Supreme Court justices. But he said there are many pending issues, like the construction of a judicial system that is truly independent of external pressures.

"I refute the claim that the amnesty law has contributed to reconciliation; the amnesty represents the failure of the rule of law, and is an obstacle to the administration of justice," said the judge.

Local human rights organisations and the U.N. Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances have called for the amnesty law to be repealed, but to no avail.

Luis Alfaro, a cheese vendor in the Zacamil market on the outskirts of San Salvador, told IPS that he does not trust the government’s statements, particularly with respect to human rights questions, and said that in his view, the amnesty has generated impunity.

Although he did not deny that the law may have warded off acts of vengeance, he said "many cases that should have been clarified have gone unpunished, like the assassination of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero and the El Mozote massacre (in which hundreds of villagers were killed), since it is known who was responsible."

"The government says there is freedom of speech, but that is only relative, because when you open your mouth, you&#39re accused of being a leftist," said Alfaro.

Archbishop Romero was killed by a sniper while celebrating mass in March 1980. The Truth Commission reported that Roberto D&#39Aubuisson, the founder of ARENA, was responsible for the murder.

With respect to the 1981 massacre in El Mozote, a village in eastern El Salvador where an estimated 900 children, women and men were killed, investigators found that it was committed by the elite U.S.-trained Atlacatl counterinsurgency battalion.

Both cases have been brought before the IACHR, and are pending resolution.

The Salvadoran government delegation in Washington was also asked to respond for the assassination of Romero. According to a communiqué released by the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), one of the plaintiffs in the case, "the Salvadoran representatives reiterated their refusal to accept responsibility for the murder."

That occurred despite the fact that the IACHR "declared in 2000 that the state was responsible for the violation of the archbishop’s right to life and for the failure to investigate his murder."

At the forum, assistant human rights prosecutor Salvador Menéndez Leal said the aim of the peace agreement was to bring about in-depth changes in El Salvador, which had not happened.

Questioning the shining portrait of El Salvador painted by the government, Menéndez Leal said the country "is not a Democracy but a ‘democracy’, in lowercase letters and in quotation marks, and one that is subject to external powers."

Menéndez Leal said the clarification of the atrocities committed during the armed conflict, the administration of justice, and reparations to the victims are still pending issues, while pointing out that no apology has ever been made to the victims.

"The amnesty law is a monument to impunity," said the official.

Alicia García of the Committee of Mothers of Political Prisoners and the Disappeared (COMADRES), who has been a human rights activist for over 25 years, said the declarations made by Santamaría and Samayoa were "embarrassing."

García, who was seized by the security forces when she was five months pregnant and tortured until she miscarried, called on the Salvadoran state to issue an apology "to the people for all of the damages done."

One of García’s sons was forcibly disappeared at the age of 12, and another of her sons was killed after testifying before the Truth Commission.

She said that as the mother of two victims, she was offended by the officials’ statements. "There is no justice here, which is why we have to continue our struggle against the amnesty," said the activist.

In the audience at the forum, two men held a small sign with a photo of Monsignor Romero that read "Who gave the order to kill him?" next to a photo of Roberto D&#39Aubuisson.

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