September 1, 2000

Salvador court refuses to release slayer of U.S. nuns

                  SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) -- One of two former soldiers still
                  imprisoned for the 1980 slaying of four U.S. religious workers has lost an appeal
                  for release, the Supreme Court announced Thursday.

                  Magistrate Eduardo Tenorio said the court rejected the petition of Francisco
                  Orlando Contreras because it believed he had not been rehabilitated.

                  A former member of the country's National Guard, Contreras was one of five
                  men sentenced to 30 years in prison in 1984 for the slayings of nuns Ita Ford,
                  Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel, and layworker Jean Donovan during the
                  country's civil war.

                  The women had been detained at a highway checkpoint in December 1980 while
                  headed to the capital from the nearby international airport. Their bullet-riddled
                  bodies were found a day later. They apparently had been raped.

                  Three of the men were freed in 1998 for good behavior under a law that reduced
                  some sentences to ease prison overcrowding.

                  Contreras and Carlos Joaquin Contreras Palacios were kept in prison because
                  they had participated in a prison uprising.

                  Human rights organizations have long pressed the government to act against
                  higher-ranking military figures they say were responsible. Families of the victims
                  said they believe the women were targeted because officials suspected they
                  sympathized with leftist guerrillas during the war.

                  In an interview earlier this year, Francisco Contreras reiterated the soldiers' claim
                  that they were only acting on orders, and he asked the victims' families for

                  "It wasn't the group's decision, it was an order. We opposed the crime,"
                  Contreras said. But he said he did not know where the order originated.

                  San Salvador Archbishop Fernando Saenz had asked the government to pardon
                  Contreras and Contreras Palacios.

                  Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.