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

RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Ex-President Cristiani Faces Charges in Spain

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Nov 13 2008 (IPS) - Charges filed by two human rights groups in Spain’s National Court Thursday against former Salvadoran president Alfredo Cristiani and 14 members of the army in connection with the 1989 slaughter of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter represent “a ray of hope” for victims of human rights abuses, say lawyers and Jesuit authorities.

The lawsuit also “highlights the state of impunity that prevails in El Salvador, where thousands of atrocious and appalling crimes committed during the (1980-1992) armed conflict cannot be investigated” because “the state continues to protect the criminals,” said David Morales, a lawyer with the Foundation for Studies on the Application of Rights (FESPAD).

“That is why the victims are now turning to international justice,” the lawyer said.

The killings of the Jesuit priests and their two employees, which was one of the most notorious cases of human rights violations in the country’s 12-year war, drew extensive international coverage, and according to Morales “is a very illustrative example of what happened in El Salvador and has an invaluable historical significance in the struggle for justice and reparation for the victims.”

The Spanish Association for Human Rights (APDHE) and the San Francisco-based Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA) filed a criminal case in the Spanish high court against former president Cristiani (1989-1994), accusing him of protecting the murderers and obstructing the subsequent investigation, and against 14 officers and soldiers of the Salvadoran army for their direct involvement in the massacre and in covering up the crime.

In the early hours of Nov. 16, 1989, members of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl counterinsurgency battalion raided the San Salvador campus of the Jesuit University of Central America (UCA), brutally killing six priests – five of whom were Spanish citizens – their housekeeper Elba Ramos, and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Celia Marisela Ramos.

In 1991, two of the nine members of the army accused of the crime, Yushi René Mendoza and Guillermo Benavides, were convicted but were released only two years later, following approval of the amnesty law decreed by Cristiani in 1993, which was seen by Salvadoran and international human rights groups as an obstacle to justice.

Current Salvadoran President Antonio Saca, who like Cristiani is a member of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance, told the press that, while he had not studied the case, he believed that “reopening wounds of the past is not the best formula for reconciliation.”

Saca added that he thought very highly of Cristiani, admired his role in the signing of the 1992 peace accords, and believed the former president “definitely has absolutely nothing to do” with the killings.

“I want to send president Cristiani a message: We are with him and we will support him to the very end, because he is a man of historical significance for the country,” Saca stressed.

The rector of the UCA, Spanish-Salvadoran priest José María Tojeira, “welcomed” the news of the criminal action filed in Spain and said he hoped that “El Salvador’s justice system will work.”

“Justice heals wounds; it doesn’t open them,” said the Jesuit priest in response to the arguments given by the government for not taking legal action against murders committed during the bloody conflict that pitted the government against the leftwing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), and claimed the lives of 80,000 Salvadorans, mainly civilians.

To claim otherwise “is an outrageous ideological distortion,” Tojeira said.

According to Morales, the aim of the 1993 amnesty law was to abolish the rights to truth, justice and reparation for the victims. The lawyer has participated as counsel in several petitions filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), including the case of Monsignor Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador murdered in March 1980 by a death squad sniper.

The IACHR also received two petitions filed by the Jesuits (Society of Jesus), which are still awaiting a ruling.

Human rights bodies and jurists maintain that the amnesty law, together with the lack of will on the part of prosecutors and certain judges, are preventing perpetrators of crimes against humanity from being punished.

This is not the first time that a local case is brought to justice in another country. Since 2004, the CJA has filed several lawsuits in U.S. courts against Salvadoran human rights violators, including former captain Álvaro Saravia, former vice minister of defence Nicolás Carranza, and former defence ministers José Guillermo García and Eugenio Vides Casanova.

In the Jesuits’ case, the CJA chose to file the action in a Madrid court because Spain has signed extradition agreements with El Salvador which are currently in force, and because Spain’s judges admit the “principle of universal jurisdiction,” already applied by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón for the 1998 arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), who died in 2006.

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