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RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Twenty Years of Deja Vu

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Oct 30 2007 (IPS) - Rosa Anaya was leaving her home early on her way to school that morning of Oct. 26, 1987 in El Salvador, when she saw her father, a few steps ahead of her, crumple beside his car, hit by six bullets.

She remembers a few blurry details: a strange whistling sound, two people running away as they wrapped their guns in newspapers, the last sight of her father alive, and a sensation of having no idea of what was going on. The killers used silencers, and few people even noticed what had happened.

Rosa froze until a neighbour called out to her and brought her back to reality: her father, Herbert Anaya Sanabria, head of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (CDHES), had been murdered when he was about to take his children to school.

Twenty years later Anaya, now 30 and a student at the University of El Salvador Faculty of Law and Social Sciences, joined with dozens of her fellow students to organise the Fourth “Herbert Anaya” International Congress of Human Rights, held on Oct. 25 and 26.

The congress carried out a comparative analysis of the human rights situation in El Salvador at the time of Anaya’s assassination and today, the activist’s eldest daughter told IPS.

A number of experts, communicators, environmentalists and social activists delivered presentations and reported violations, not only of civil and political, but also of economic and social, rights. In addition, they called for justice for the victims of the 1980-1992 civil war, in front of an audience of hundreds of students participating in the event.

Anaya acknowledged that there is no longer systematic political persecution in this Central American country, but she complained that when someone tries to express themselves freely they are accused of being a communist, just as in the past.

“We have a long way to go before this country respects human rights; the government gloss is that we are living in peace, but 12 people are murdered every day,” she said.

Herbert Anaya was killed during the civil war which left 75,000 people dead and 8,000 disappeared. In January 1992, the government of then President Alfredo Cristiani and the leftwing guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) signed peace accords in Mexico, brokered by the United Nations.

The FMLN is now the leading opposition party in Congress.

The peace agreement included provision for setting up a Truth Commission to investigate the highest-profile atrocities, but neither Herbert Anaya’s nor archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassinations were cleared up due to “lack of time,” as the Truth Commission was only given six months to do its work.

Both their murders remain unpunished, mainly because of the amnesty law passed by the Cristiani administration in March 1993, which prevents prosecutions against people for crimes against humanity, in spite of the fact that national and international organisations have called for the law to be repealed.

In the 1980s, thousands of peasants, students, trade unionists, priests and human rights activists were killed by death squads as part of a crusade against the left spearheaded by the late Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, the founder of the rightwing National Republican Alliance (ARENA), who was accused by the Truth Commission of ordering Romero’s murder.

In 2006, there were 56 homicides per 100,000 people in El Salvador, according to the state Institute of Forensic Medicine (IMS), making this impoverished country one of the most violent in the world.

The assistant human rights prosecutor, Salvador Meléndez, told IPS that in order to achieve reconciliation and build democracy after the civil war, it was essential to shed light on history, and respect the human right to truth.

Meléndez said he was in favour of justice for the victims, as well as moral, social and legal reparations.

“We have to nurture our collective memory, because those who don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it,” he said, after giving a speech before some 300 students, professors and members of civil society organisations.

University of El Salvador Professor Evelyn Hernández said that many people today continue to suffer “violations of their economic and social rights, like the right to health, clean water and security.”

“Anaya was a man who fought hard in defence of human rights,” Hernández said.

Rosa Anaya said that her father had been kidnapped and tortured by the now defunct Policia de Hacienda (the notorious Treasury Police), so that the family had had to live undercover.

“I didn’t know the actual names of my parents or relatives, they were just Mum, Dad, Uncles and Aunts,” she said.

After the murder, they had to flee and sleep in different houses every night for months. Flowers on Herbert Anaya’s grave were burned, and a message was left on it: “If we could kill him again, we’d do it.”

María Luisa Romero, a law student at Harvard University, attended the congress and presented the results of a study by the international law project centre at that U.S. college about violence, youth gangs and human rights violations in El Salvador.

“The state is incapable of protecting the victims; investigations are simply not carried out, are delayed or are ineffective,” and whether by commission or omission, people’s rights are violated, the young Panamanian woman told IPS.

According to Romero, during the research some similarities between the war years and the present cropped up. “Social inequalities tend to give rise to the violation of social and economic rights,” she said.

“We have to stir people up so that they fight for their rights,” Anaya concluded.

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