Nearly 20 years after the Salvadoran army killed six Jesuit priests in one of the most notorious events of El Salvador’s civil war, a criminal complaint filed in the Spanish High Court has revived hopes that those behind the massacre could face trial.
Human rights lawyers filed a complaint on Thursday against then-Salvadoran president Alfredo Cristiani Burkard and 14 former members of the Salvadoran military, as well as two female employees, for their roles in the killings of the priests and in the official cover-up that followed. International outrage over the murders proved to be pivotal in sapping US support for military assistance to the Salvadoran army.
“We hope this case helps to reawaken the memory and the conscience of El Salvador’s people,” said Almudena Bernabeu, a lawyer for the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, a human rights law center, which filed the case along with the Spanish Association for Human Rights.
The crusading Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon made legal history in 1998 when he secured the arrest in Britain of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet using a Spanish legal principle that crimes against humanity can be prosecuted anywhere. Pinochet narrowly escaped extradition to Spain by pleading ill health.
In the early hours of Nov. 16, 1989, members of the Salvadoran army forced their way into the Jesuit priests’ residence on the campus of the Central American University in San Salvador. They ordered five of the priests to lie face-down in the garden, shot them and then searched the house, killing another priest, the housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter. But another housekeeper witnessed the attack.
A 1991 report by a UN-sponsored Truth Commission said General Rene Emilio Ponce, then army chief, ordered the killing of one of the priests, Ignacio Ellacuria Bescoetxea. Ponce ordered soldiers to leave no witnesses to the murder of Ellacuria, who had promoted peace talks between the right-wing military government and Marxist guerrillas.
The complaint filed on Thursday accuses Cristiani of helping cover up a crime against humanity. It accuses Ponce and the 13 others of crimes against humanity, murder and state-sponsored terrorism for their involvement in the slaughter.
Despite the witness account, the investigations and circumstantial evidence, efforts to make El Salvador’s military account for the killings have been largely fruitless. In a 1991 trial held in El Salvador, two military officials were convicted of murder and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The two were released under a 1993 amnesty.
Even if the suspects were not extradited, the Spanish case could force a trial in El Salvador, Bernabeu said. Any prosecution would serve as some form of justice and strengthen calls for a repeal of the country’s controversial amnesty law, said Gisela de Leon, a lawyer with the Center for Justice and International Law in Costa Rica.
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