Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Impunity Defies Inter-American Court

SAN SALVADOR, Jan 2 2009 (IPS) - The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Salvadoran state to fully comply with its sentence in the case of the murder of businessman Mauricio García Prieto, and to put an end to threats and harassment of the victim’s parents by government agents.

The decision was handed down in response to the Salvadoran government’s advisory opinion request filed in March to seek an “interpretation” of the Inter-American Court December 2007 ruling that says the state should conclude the pending investigations into García Prieto’s homicide.

The Court said the investigations must be completed regardless of whether the statute of limitations on the murder has expired or the fact that El Salvador did not accept the competence of the Court until 1995, a year after García Prieto was killed.

Guadalupe de Espinoza, a lawyer with the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America (IDHUCA) who is heading the process, explained that the Court reiterated its December 2007 verdict, which was not on the June 1994 murder, but referred to the lack of justice in the case and the threats and attacks suffered by José Mauricio and Gloria de García Prieto, the victim’s parents.

Under Salvadoran law, the statute of limitations runs out on a murder charge after 10 years.

On Jun. 10, 1994, Mauricio García Prieto, his wife and their five-month-old son were intercepted by two masked men outside of a relative’s house, one of whom shouted “We’ve come to kill you, son-of-a-bitch!” before shooting the businessman at point-blank range, according to witness testimony.

Human rights advocates and the García Prieto family said at the time that the murder was linked to a rash of death squad killings of former commanders of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which had recently become a legal political party.

The FMLN guerrillas demobilised after a 1992 peace agreement put an end to El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. Far-right death squads are blamed for the majority of the 75,000 killings and 8,000 forced disappearances committed during the armed conflict.

After the murder, the wealthy García Prieto family was in constant contact with police chiefs and prosecutors, but failed to obtain a satisfactory response about the progress of the investigation, which they say was marred by irregularities and served as a cover-up for those who ordered the killing.

Although two people are in prison for carrying out the murder, those who planned and ordered the killing have never been identified.

A few months after the murder, the victim’s parents began to receive threatening telephone calls, and noticed they were being followed.

Gloria de García Prieto alleged several years after the murder that a former army general was one of those who ordered her son killed, but conclusive evidence has not been found.

After the Inter-American Court handed down its initial ruling in December 2007, lawyer David Morales, who was working in the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office (PDDH) at the time of the murder and led the investigation, said his office had concluded that García Prieto may have been killed by a death squad made up of members of the dismantled security forces who were purposely embedded in the National Civil Police (PNC) when it was created in 1993.

“Several police chiefs tried to hinder the investigation,” said Morales, who also represented the plaintiffs in the case against El Salvador being heard by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, involving the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero by far-right paramilitaries.

De Espinoza told IPS that the state has not complied with any of the verdict’s three points, but that the Human Rights Institute would press forward, to get the Salvadoran justice system to fully fulfill the sentence.

“The most important part of the sentence, without downplaying the rest, is for those responsible for the murder and the attacks on the victim’s parents to be brought to trial,” said de Espinoza, who is also the assistant director of IDHUCA.

“Until those responsible for the crimes are punished, there will be no justice,” she said.

The recent Court sentence, issued in late November, stipulates that the Salvadoran government must compensate the victim’s family for the legal costs incurred, and provide them with medical and psychological assistance. It also says the García Prieto family, members of IDHUCA and experts working on the case must be provided with protection according to the terms specified by the Court, and not as the government deems best.

In addition, the sentence must be published in the Official Gazette and at least one other national media outlet, said the Court.

The second sentence “is highly significant for Salvadoran justice” and is “a reference point for the fight against impunity,” said the victim’s mother.

This is the second ruling against El Salvador handed down by the Inter-American Court. The first was issued in March 2005 and involved the failure to bring to justice those responsible for the forced disappearance of two sisters, three-year-old Ernestina and seven-year-old Erlinda Serrano, at the hands of the army during a military counterinsurgency operation in 1982.

Human Rights Ombudsman Óscar Luna told IPS that in his annual report, he describes a deterioration of basic rights in 2008.

Of 2,485 complaints filed with his office, 1,603 are blamed on the National Civil Police. Among the most frequent charges against them are violations of individual security, excessive use of force and coercion.

“The fact that the PNC is the most frequent target of complaints is disturbing,” because it implies that the security of citizens is undermined by those who have the duty to protect them, said the official.

Gloria de García Prieto said the bugging of the family’s telephones and the harassment continue, although in a more sophisticated manner.

She clarified that they have not accepted the conditions in which the state has offered them protection because they found out that the agents “who supposedly would protect us were spying on us.

“They would come to our house just to listen to our conversations and identify who was visiting us. They were like the Trojan horse.

“How can we trust agents of the state if they are the ones who killed my son?” she asked.

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