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EL SALVADOR: Amnesty Law Biggest Obstacle to Human Rights, Say Activists

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Mar 26 2007 (IPS) - "We searched for our loved ones everywhere: military barracks, cemeteries, prisons, but we still know nothing about what happened to them. Total impunity surrounds their disappearances," says Salvadoran activist Alicia García.

The 64-year-old García, of the Committee of Mothers of the Detained-Disappeared (Comadres), lost a son and a brother to forced disappearance during El Salvador&#39s 12-year civil war.

Hers is one of the many voices calling for the repeal of a 1993 amnesty law seen by activists and United Nations experts as the biggest hurdle to achieving respect for human rights, as the country&#39s homicide rate soars and forced disappearances are occurring once again.

Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudswoman Beatrice de Carrillo reported a further rise in the murder rate – already one of the highest in the world – and a resurgence of forced disappearances in recent months.

She also complained that the amnesty law has created a climate of impunity and is blocking investigations into the whereabouts of the remains of thousands of Salvadorans who were "disappeared" during the 1980-1992 armed conflict.

In February and March, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and human rights groups called for the amnesty law to be overturned.

The Human Rights Ombudsperson&#39s Office (PDDH), which is headed by de Carrillo, also expressed its concern over the Feb. 7 disappearance of 21-year-old student activist Edward Francisco Contreras, which came on top of three previous disappearances which the police and judicial authorities have failed to take effective measures to clarify.

Activists say these problems raise doubts about the democratic process that began with the signing of the peace agreement in 1992, after an armed conflict that left 75,000 people dead and between 5,500 and 8,000 people "disappeared".

The Contreras family turned to the PDDH after they had petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus and had searched for Edward in hospitals and police stations. But "the authorities still have no leads as to his possible whereabouts," said the ombudsperson&#39s office.

"Despite my request for information on the cases, neither the police nor the prosecutor&#39s office has provided any," said de Carrillo.

The PDDH, which was created as a result of the peace agreement, is an independent body charged with receiving allegations of human rights abuses committed by government officials, investigating them, and if warranted, lodging complaints against specific officials.

Contreras, a secondary school student, is a member of the left-wing Bloque Popular Juvenil (Popular Youth Bloc), which is staunchly opposed to the government of right-wing President Antonio Saca.

The other three cases involving disappearances in the last year are those of Milton Iván Gutiérrez, and Jorge Alberto Iglesias and María Hortensia García, a married couple who were both lawyers, and who disappeared in April 2006. They were last seen having lunch in downtown San Salvador.

A PDDH communiqué referring to the cases of Contreras and Gutiérrez says "It is particularly striking that in both cases, there are signs pointing to the involvement of National Civil Police (PNC) agents, although police files contain no information on the whereabouts of the two men."

But de Carrillo clarified that the disappearances in question did not necessarily have any connection with political motivations.

In the petition for habeas corpus, Contreras&#39 father stated that when he visited the police station in Ateos, to the south of the capital, a police officer who he identified as Sergeant Ayala told him, after making a few phone calls, that his son had been picked up by the Homicide Investigation Division.

But when the father asked around at other police stations and offices, he met with universal denial that Contreras had been arrested.

The cases are reminiscent of El Salvador&#39s military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, when the now partially demobilised security forces and death squads routinely murdered or "disappeared" political and social opponents of the regime – similar to what was occurring during that same time period in other Central and South American countries, such as Guatemala, Argentina and Chile.

(Under the peace agreement, the security forces were reduced by half and purged of "known human rights violators").

Activist García is a living example of what was happening during that time. Her son, José William, was kidnapped in 1978 at the age of 12. He is still missing, as is one of García&#39s brothers. A second brother was killed in 1981. And another of her sons, Juan Carlos, was killed in 1993, when he was 16, after he testified before the Truth Commission.

García herself was seized and tortured. On Oct. 9, 1981, "they shoved me into a car, blindfolded me, tied my hands together, and started to beat me in the stomach. I was five months pregnant," she told IPS.

The activist says the men who abducted her belonged to the National Guard.

In the military installations where she was taken, she was tortured by having a mask tightly wrapped around her head until she almost suffocated, and with electric shock to her vagina and nipples. She was also raped.

She miscarried three days later. When the cell in which she was being held began to smell as a result, "one of the torturers told me ‘take that bitch!&#39" said García, overcome with emotion.

A few weeks later, she was dumped in the street, tied up, blindfolded and naked.

Lawyer Gisela De León of the Costa Rica-based Centre for Justice and International Law said the Salvadoran amnesty has sent a message that those guilty of human rights abuses can continue to commit crimes with impunity.

"The investigation, identification and punishment of the perpetrators, on the contrary, would send a message to future generations that violence of the kind that occurred in the past will not be tolerated," she told IPS.

De León is representing several cases against the Salvadoran state being heard by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

Since the amnesty went into effect under president Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994), several governments have refused to repeal it, arguing that such a move would only reopen old wounds.

But activists and many families of victims argue that the wounds have not healed because the truth about what happened has not come out and reparations have not been made.

In early February, the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visited El Salvador to gather new information. The Working Group estimates the number of victims of forced disappearance at 5,500, while families put the total at 8,000.

At the end of the visit, the Working Group "reminded" the state that the perpetrators of forced disappearance "should not benefit by any amnesty law" and urged the Saca administration to strike it down or bring it into line with international law.

Despite these demands, "there are unfortunately very powerful forces that refuse to accept its repeal," said de Carrillo.

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