International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case

We already have looked at a Spanish court’s recent issuance of 20 criminal arrest warrants regarding the November 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador[1] and the provisional facts of the murders themselves[2]  and the Salvadoran military’s attempts to cover up its being the one responsible for the killings.[3]  We also have summarized the Salvadoran criminal case regarding this crime[4] and the work of the Truth Commission for El Salvador as it pertains to this crime.[5] Now we look at El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and its impact on the Jesuits’ case.[6]

Adoption of the General Amnesty Law

Five days after the delivery of the Truth Commission Report in March 1993, El Salvador’s National Assembly adopted the General Amnesty Law for the Consolidation of the Peace (Decree 486). It granted in Article 1: “a full, absolute and unconditional amnesty to all those who participated in any     way in the commission, prior to January 1, 1992 [the end of the civil war], of political crimes or common crimes linked to political crimes or common crimes in which the number of persons involved is no less than twenty.”

This law’s Article 6 stipulated that the amnesty shall apply “to the persons referred to in article 6 of the National Reconciliation Law . . . of January 23, 1992 [i.e., to those who would be named or implicated in the anticipated Truth Commission Report].” In addition, Article 2 of the Law broadened the definition of “political crime” to include “crimes against the public peace,” “crimes against the activities of the courts,” and crimes “committed on the occasion of or as a consequence of the armed conflict, without regard to political condition, militancy, affiliation or ideology.” Article 4 stated that all pending cases should be dismissed and all individuals being held should be released while anyone charged in the future could obtain dismissal of the charges. In addition, Article 4 provided that the amnesty extinguished all civil liability.[7]

This legislation had been recommended by then President Cristiani and passed by the ARENA- party-controlled Assembly over objections by the U.N. Secretary General and the new Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman. It should also be noted that the Truth Commission had not recommended any amnesty as the Commissioners thought that was a decision for the people to make after an appropriate dialogue on the subject. But the manner in which the General Amnesty Law was rushed through the legislature was later seen by at least one of the Truth Commissioners as “unseemly at the very least, indicative of a lack of respect for the democratic processes, and thus incompatible with the spirit of the Peace Accords.” [8]

In passing the General Amnesty Law, the Government overruled the agreed-on terms of the National Reconciliation Law of January 23, 1992, that provided amnesty for combatants in the civil war, but not for (1) persons convicted by juries and (2) those named by the Truth Commission as responsible for serious human rights violations, but that allowed the latter exception to amnesty to be overruled by the National Assembly six months after the issuance of the Truth Commission Report and presumably after public debate about any such overruling. Significantly the National Reconciliation Law of 1992 was a political compromise. The right-wing ARENA party that controlled the government wanted a blanket amnesty that would have immunized all persons committing any war crimes while opposition parties wanted a more limited amnesty, and the two sides instead agreed to the compromise provision just noted.[9]

Impact of the General Amnesty Law on the Jesuits Case in El Salvado

In 1993, pursuant to the General Amnesty Law, Colonel Benavides and the others who had been convicted in the Jesuits case were released from prison.[10]

 Salvadoran Litigation over the General Amnesty Law

 Immediately after the adoption of this law, Salvadoran human rights organizations brought a lawsuit to challenge its constitutionality, but the Salvadoran Supreme Court in 1993 rejected that claim. The court, in part, justified its conclusion by relying upon the following provision of Article 6(5) of the Protocol II to the Geneva Convention relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts: “At the end of hostilities, the authorities in power shall endeavour to grant the broadest possible amnesty to persons who have participated in the armed conflict, or those   deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the armed conflict, whether they are  interned or detained.” [11]

This broad reading of the above provision of Protocol II of this Geneva Convention, however, is not sustained by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has primary responsibility for monitoring world-wide compliance with the Geneva Conventions. Instead, the ICRC says it is inappropriate to grant amnesty to persons who have violated international humanitarian law, i.e., the law of war; Article 6(5) instead was intended to encourage amnesty or immunity for combatants so long as they act in accordance with that humanitarian law.[12]

Moreover, notwithstanding this provision of Protocol II, El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and similar laws in other countries have been criticized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as violating the American Convention on Human Rights. Similar criticisms have been leveled against this and similar laws in other countries under the American Convention on Human Rights and other multilateral human rights treaties by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the U.N. Secretary-General, several U.N. human rights bodies, the European Court of Human Rights and international criminal tribunals.[13] These arguments also have been advanced by human rights NGOs.[14]

Again in 2000 the Salvadoran Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the General Amnesty Law, but this time it also held that each investigative judge could determine whether application of the law in a particular case would interfere with the country’s treaty obligations or with reparation of a fundamental right, and if it would so interfere, the judge would not have to apply the law.[15]

The importance of the General Amnesty Law and whether it is constitutional under Salvadoran law has not gone away. Indeed, right now these are hot topics in El Salvador, as we will see in the next post.

In any event, as a result of the General Amnesty Law, the author is not aware of any new Salvadoran criminal prosecutions of those named in the Truth Commission Report, and the Commission’s recommendation of eventual punishment of the guilty by the Salvadoran government has been rejected. Moreover, in the years since the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision announcing the ability of a judge in an individual case to not apply the amnesty law, the author is not aware of any instance in which that has been done.

[1] See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests (May31, 2011).

[2]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 2, 2011).

[3]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s Military’s Attempt To Cover-Up Its Committing the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 7, 2011).

[4]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Criminal Prosecution of the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 8, 2011).

[5] See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in the Truth Commission for El Salvador (June 9, 2011) .

[6]  In subsequent posts, we will examine the Jesuits case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Spanish court.

[7]  I-A Comm’n Human Rights, Report on the Situation in El Salvador § II (4) (Feb. 11, 1994); Doe v. Saravia, 348 F. Supp. 2d at 1133;  U.S.State Dep’t, El Salvador Human Rights Practices, 1993, at 1 (Jan. 31, 1994); Hemisphere Initiatives,  Justice Impugned: The Salvadoran Peace Accords and the Problem of Impunity at 6-7 (June 1993); Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, El Salvador’s Negotiated Revolution: Prospects for Legal Reform at 62-79; Popkin at 135, 150-52; Brief Amici Curiae [26 international human rights law professors] in Support of Appellees and Affirmance at 4, Chavez v. Carranza (6th Cir. May 14, 2008) [“Law Professors Amici Brief”].

[8]  Miller, Compromise Amnesty Law OK’d in Salvador–Central America, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 24, 1992; Popkin at 150-52; Buergenthal at 536-38.There, however, was no significant political support for repeal of the General Amnesty Law, and in 1994 the FMLN said that if the Law were held unconstitutional, it would support a new, narrower amnesty law. Popkin at 157.

[9]   Id.

[10]  IACHR, Ellacuria v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 136/99 ¶ 36 (Case No. 10.488 Dec. 22, 1999); New Charges Barred in Salvador Killings, N. Y. Times, Oct. 24, 2000.

[11]  Popkin at 152-53; International Comm. of Red Cross, http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/WebList?ReadForm&id=475&t=art. Subsequently courts in South Africa and Chile apparently followed this ruling of the El Salvador Supreme Court. (Popkin at 153.)

[12]  Roht-Arriaza, Combating Impunity: Some Thoughts on the Way Forward, 59 Law & Contemp. Problems 93, 97 (Fall 1996); Roht-Arriaza, The Developing Jurisprudence on Amnesty, 20 Hum. Rts. Q. 843, 865-66 (1998); IACHR, Cea, et al, v, El Salvador . Rep. No. 1/99, ¶ 116 (Case No. 10.480 Jan. 27, 1999); Popkin at 154.

[13]  U.N. Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances–Mission to El Salvador ,  ¶¶  62-75, 83 (Oct. 26, 2007); U.N. Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances  ¶  426 (Jan. 10, 2008); U.N. Human Rights Comm., Concluding Observations of the Committee: El Salvador   ¶ 6 (July 22, 2003);  U.N. Human Rights Comm., Concluding Observations of the Committee: Republic of Congo  ¶ 12 (2000); U.N. Human Rights Comm., General Comment 20, ¶ 15 (Mar. 10, 1992); U.N. Comm. on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Concluding Observations of the Committee: El Salvador   ¶ ¶ 15, 22 (April 4, 2006); U.N. Hum. Rts. Comm’n, General Recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on Torture ¶ (k) (2003); U.N. Gen. Ass’bly Res. 47/133, Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances , Art. 18 (1) (Feb. 12, 1993); IACHR, 1985-1986 Annual Report of IACHR, ch. V (“only the appropriate democratic institutions—usually the legislature—with the participation of all the representative sectors, are the only ones called upon to determine whether or not to decree an amnesty of [sic] the scope thereof, while amnesties decreed previously by those responsible for the violations has [sic] no juridical validity”);  Law Professors Amici Brief at 8-29; Weissbrodt at 500-01.

[14]  E.g., Equipo de Concertacion por la paz, la dignidada y la justicia social, Evaluacion de 15 anos despues de la firma de los Acuerdos de Paz en El Salvador  (Jan. 16, 2007);  Equipo Regional de Monitoreo y Analisis de Derechos Humanos en Centroamerica, Derechos Humans y Conflictividad en C.A.: Violencia, impunidad y megaproyectos contra la vida y la dignidad  (June 2008); Equipo Regional de Monitoreo y Analisis de Derechos Humanos en Centroamerica, 2008-2009 Informe Sobre Derechos Humanos y Conflictividad en Centroamerica at 30, 67-68 (2009).

[15]  Brief of Amicus Curiae Republic of El Salvador, Carranza v. Chavez, 2009 WL 1511733 (U.S. Sup. Ct. No. 08-1497 May 28, 2009); Brief Amici Curiae [26 international human rights law professors] in Support of Appellees and Affirmance at 14-15, Chavez v. Carranza (6th Cir. May 14, 2008) [“Law Professors Amici Brief”].

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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