El Salvador amnesty law lets perpetrators of priests' murders walk free
Spanish court bids to prosecute 1989 slayings of priests
By Oscar Avila
SAN SALVADOR — It was one sort of grief that Father Jose Maria Tojeira felt when he entered the home of his fellow Jesuit priests that day in 1989. Before him, he saw corpses and bloodstained walls, testament to one of the most notorious massacres committed during El Salvador's civil war.
Twenty years later, another anguish lingers in Tojeira from the knowledge that the military officers accused of killing six priests and two others in their home now live openly without fear of punishment.
A controversial law granting amnesty to the perpetrators of abuses is once again in the spotlight in El Salvador after a judge in Spain agreed in January to prosecute 14 military officers in the slaying while explicitly leaving the door open to indicting former President Alfredo Cristiani in the coverup.
From the current trial of Khmer Rouge members in Cambodia to the international tribunal prosecuting Balkans war crimes, the quest for justice after a conflict means overcoming legal barriers and revisiting the trauma of the violence itself.
El Salvador is still wrestling with how to achieve justice after a 12-year conflict between Marxist rebels and a military regime propped up by the Reagan administration.
While international human-rights groups say prosecution is the only logical avenue, both leading candidates in March's presidential election have taken the opposite approach, vowing to keep the amnesty law in place.
That angers Tojeira, now rector at Central American University, which houses a shrine to the slain priests. "We call it an insult to the victims of El Salvador," he said. "The amnesty law attempts to say that nothing happened here, that the living are the ones who count and the dead don't matter. It is a lack of respect to human dignity."
The facts of the murder of the Jesuits have been re-affirmed by national and international investigators. El Salvador's truth commission determined that high-level military officers planned the attack on the priests, who were considered "subversives" because they favored peace talks and had contacts with FMLN rebels.
Investigators have determined that the soldiers, part of a military trained by the United States during the Cold War-era clashes that flared throughout Central America, entered the priests' residence, tortured them and then ordered them to lie face-down in the garden. There, they were shot.
According to El Salvador's truth commission, military and security forces as well as death squads aligned with the government were responsible for about 95 percent of the 22,000 registered acts of serious violence.
Several low-level military officers were convicted in the Jesuits case but were freed from prison soon after the government passed the amnesty law in 1993.
Today, former government officials involved in the post-war negotiations say the amnesty was the only way to prevent a period of recriminations that would have distracted from rebuilding.
"The amnesty is a product of consensus, that we have no other exit if we aren't capable of forgiving—maybe not forgetting, but forgiving," former Foreign Minister Oscar Santamaria said recently at the Organization of American States in Washington.
The conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance, the ruling party, contains many members who were part of the military regime decades ago. Party officials have lobbied passionately in support of the amnesty.
But Salvadorans were stunned when the presidential candidate of the left-wing FMLN party, the offshoot of the rebels, went against his party's traditional position by announcing his support for maintaining the amnesty.
Mauricio Funes, on track in polls to become the country's first liberal president since the war ended, told an interviewer: "We cannot change the past of hate, of confrontation. The future, we can build differently."
Even as the amnesty law blocks prosecution in El Salvador, a judge in Spain agreed to hear the case under a Spanish legal principle of "universal jurisdiction," that any country can prosecute certain offenses such as crimes against humanity, torture and genocide.
Spain has aggressively pursued these sorts of cases, including attempting to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the late 1990s on charges of torture.
Almudena Bernabeu, international attorney for the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, one of two plaintiffs in the Jesuit case, said she hopes Spain's prosecution will help spur El Salvador to reconsider its amnesty law.
Bernabeu said she thinks crime-ridden El Salvador's status as one of Latin America's most violent nations can be traced to how it handled the violence of the war.
"As humans, we are very good at adaptation. We adapt to the good and the bad," Bernabeu said. "When a society develops the idea that they will never be punished no matter what they do, it perverts the society."
But several key Salvadoran human-rights groups have declined to participate in the case being tried in Spain.
Benjamin Cuellar, director of the non-profit Human Rights Institute in San Salvador, said his group doesn't oppose the prosecution but believes justice can be achieved only in Salvadoran courts.
Likewise, Cuellar doesn't oppose pardoning the perpetrators but says they must face a legal process and have their guilt publicly affirmed.
"We have to get rid of the cliche that says, 'we can't reopen old wounds,' " he said. "Yes, it is important to turn the page. But first you must read the page and learn the lessons."
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