Salvadoran ex-generals on trial
Families of four U.S. church women who were slain in 1980 are
suing Gen. José
Guillermo García and Gen. Carlos Vides Casanova under a federal war crimes
ELINOR J. BRECHER
Calling the 1980 deaths of four American church women in El Salvador
murders'' and a ``horrible atrocity,'' a Palm Beach federal judge Tuesday began
the civil trial of two former top Salvadoran military officials being sued under
international law by the victims' families.
But in impaneling a jury of six women and four men, U.S. District
T.K. Hurley stressed that the deaths were not the issue; others had been
convicted and sentenced for the crime, he explained.
The jury will decide whether Gen. José Guillermo García,
former defense minister,
and Gen. Carlos Vides Casanova, then national guard director, should be held
liable for the actions of subordinates.
Five Salvadoran soldiers raped, tortured and shot to death Sisters
Ita Ford, Maura
Clarke and Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan.
The civil trial is expected to last through the end of the month.
The relatives are suing for at least $1 million under the 1992
federal Torture Victim
The law permits war crimes victims or their survivors to sue high-ranking
government officials who, as Hurley said, ``authorize, tolerate or knowingly ignore''
their subordinates' heinous acts.
The soldiers were sentenced to prison in the women's deaths, which
during a bloody civil war that claimed an estimated 20,000 civilian lives, including
Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Among dozens of plaintiffs' witnesses expected to testify are
Robert White, the
American ambassador at the time; former Salvadoran military junta figure Col.
Adolfo Majano; United Nations officials; religious-order members; and journalists,
including photographer Susan Meiselas, whose widely circulated still photo of the
women's bodies, exhumed from shallow graves as White looked on, is likely to be
shown by plaintiffs' lawyers in opening arguments today.
A 1993 U.N. report concluded that both defendants were complicit
in the deaths:
Vides Casanova because he knew guardsmen had killed the women but covered
up their actions; and García because he failed to vigorously investigate the
After Hurley dismissed the jury Tuesday, the plaintiffs' lawyers,
and Bob Kerrigan, showed the gruesome photograph as well as video of the
exhumation in which peasants drag the bodies in the dirt with ropes.
Hurley agreed with defense attorney Kurt Klaus that Montgomery
could not show the video during opening arguments but might be able to use it
during the trial.
Vides Casanova and García glanced impassively at the images
on a giant screen,
listening on headphones as Pilar Nelson, a simultaneous interpreter, explained
the attorneys' arguments.
Both men live in Florida: García in Plantation, Vides Casanova
in Palm Coast
north of Daytona Beach.
Their legal resident status in the United States troubled at least
juror, a woman who said she would have trouble being fair to the defendants
because she didn't feel they had a right to be here.
Hurley excused her from serving, as he did others who said their
might influence their decision.