Spain Ready to Proceed with Case Over the 1989 Killing of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador

For the last nine years, a court in Spain has been trying to obtain the presence of 20 former Salvadoran military officers to face trial on their alleged involvement in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador. Recently one of them—Inocente Orlando Montano Morales (“Montano”)—Is about to be sent to Spain for trial.[1]

 Montano

Former Colonel Montano was the deputy minister of Salvadoran Public Security from 1989 to 1992 and since April 2015 has been the subject of a judicial request by the U.S. Department of Justice for his extradition from the U.S. to Spain to face these charges.

On February 4, 2016, a Magistrate Judge in the U.S. District Court for the District Court of the Eastern District of North Carolina, after an evidentiary hearing, granted this request for extradition based upon the following conclusions: the court had personal jurisdiction over Montano; the U.S. and Spain had an extradition treaty; Montano had been charged with extraditable offenses under that treaty (the terrorist murder of five Jesuit priests of Spanish original nationality); and there was probable cause the Montano committed these offenses.[2]

Montano then exercised his only means of appealing that order by filing in April 2016 an application for a writ of habeas corpus in the same court. After briefing and a hearing, a district judge of that court in August 2017, granted the U.S. government’s motion to dismiss the application and dismissed the application.  This was based on the court’s conclusion that this extradition followed accepted practice and did not appear to be infirm; the treaty “provides for the extradition of a defendant charged with murder when committed outside the territory of the requesting nation {Spain]; . . . [its] laws allow for such a prosecution; and the laws of the requested nation [the U.S.] would allow for a prosecution in similar circumstances.”[3]

Montano then appealed this order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and simultaneously asked the district court for a stay or postponement of his extradition. This was denied by the district court on September 6 after concluding that he has “failed to make a strong showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits [of his appeal]” and “cannot demonstrate that he will suffer irreparable injury in the absence of a stay.” Thereafter simple denials of the request for a stay were entered on September 28 by the Fourth Circuit and on November 15 by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.[4]

Undoubtedly important in Chief Justice Roberts’ denial of a stay was the brief in opposition to such a stay that was submitted by the U.S. Solicitor General, the principal attorney for the U.S. in the U.S. Supreme Court. In its first three of 29 pages, before setting forth a detailed review and approval of the lower courts’ actions, that brief set forth the following facts from the record: “Toward the end of that war [between the military –led government and a leftist guerrilla group]– on November 16, 1989—members of the El Salvador Armed Forces . . . murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s daughter at the Universidad Centroamerica (UCA) in El Salvador. . . . Five of them were Spanish nationals.” Moreover, evidence submitted by the Spanish authorities showed that “in the days leading up to the murders, the . . .  radio station that [Montano] oversaw made threats against the Jesuit priests; that on the day before the murders, [Montano] participated in a meeting at which one of this fellow officers gave the order to kill the priests; that [Montano] provided ‘necessary information’—namely, the location of one of the priests—to those who carried out the murders; and that following the murders, [Montano] attempted to conceal [the Armed Forces] involvement by threatening the wife of a witness.”[5]

The Solicitor General concluded his brief with these comments: “the [U.S.] has a strong interest in having extradition requests resolved without undue delay, both to comply with its treaty obligations and to further its reciprocal interest in having other Nations cooperate swiftly with its own extradition requests and other law enforcement objectives.” Moreover, “Spain is an important partner of the [U.S.] in terrorism and other cases of national importance, and timely compliance with its extradition requests advances the [U.S.’] foreign policy and law enforcement interests.” (Pp. 27-28.)

As a result, Montano is now headed for imminent extradition to Spain. Almudena Bernabéu, an expert from the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) and a private prosecutor of the Jesuits case in Spain with her organization Guernica 37, said about four weeks ago the State Department determined that extradition was appropriate. “From that moment, the two countries are ready for delivery and reception of Montano, but they did not want to do it” until he had exhausted all of his U.S. remedies.

Other Former Salvadoran Military Officers

Of the other 19 former Salvadoran military officers charged with this horrible crime, one was convicted of the crime in El Salvador and was re-imprisoned after its Supreme Court invalidated its Amnesty law, one (former Defense Minister Emilio Ponce) is deceased and two others are cooperating with the Spanish prosecutors (Yussy Mendoza and Camilo Hernandez).

These other 15 still live in their home country, but its Supreme Court twice (2012 and 2016) has denied their extradition to Spain.

Manuel Escalante, a human rights lawyer at Jose Simeon Canas Central American University, where the murdered priests lived and worked and were murdered, after learning of the imminent extradition of Montano, called for prosecution of the 14 in El Salvador. He said that a conviction in Spain would be a big step toward “eliminating historical impunity” and that Salvadoran prosecutors must also act to advance the case in the Central American nation. The victims and their defenders “are going to seek justice. We are going to ask for the reopening of the trial.”[6]

The university, however, previously had said it considers the case closed against those who carried out the killings and even has called for clemency for former Col. Guillermo Benavides, who has served four years of a 30-year sentence as the only military official in prison for his role in the crime.

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[1] The charges subsequently were reduced to terrorist murder of the five priests of original Spanish nationality as a result of an amendment to Spain’s statute on universal jurisdiction. The priests, their murders, judicial proceedings about this crime, including the Spanish case, and these extradition proceeding have been discussed in the posts listed in “The Jesuit Priests” section in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[2]  Certification of Extraditability & Order of Commitment, In re Request by Spain for the Extradition of Montano, Montano v. Elks. No. 2:15-MJ-1021-KS (E.D.N.C. Feb. 5, 2016).

[3] Order, Montano v.  Elks, No. 5-16-HC-2066-BO (E.D.N.C. Aug. 21, 2017).

[4] Order, Montano v.  Elks, No. 5-16-HC-2066-BO (E.D.N.C.. Sept. 6, 2017); Order, Montano v.  Elks, N0. 17-7091 (4th Cir. Sept. 28, 2017); Order, Montano v.  Elks, No. 17A445 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Nov. 15, 2017); Drew, Last hurdle cleared for ex-Salvadoran official’s extradition, Assoc. Press (Nov. 15, 2017); Labrador & Rauda, Colonel Montano to Spain for the  murder of the Jesuits, El Faro (Nov. 15, 2017); Progress in Jesuit murder case on 28th anniversary, El Salvador Perspectives (Nov. 16, 2017); Alonso, The Supreme Court of the United States approves extraditing a Salvadoran ex-military man to Spain for the killing of the six Jesuits, El Pais (Nov. 15, 2017).

[5] Memorandum for the Federal Respondents in Opposition, Montano v. Elks, No. 17A445 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Nov. 8, 2017).

[6] Assoc. Press, El Salvador Jesuits Seek Reopening of Case in 1989 Massacre, N.Y. Times (Nov. 16, 2017); Lafuente, A halo of justice in the killing of the Jesuits in El Salvador, El Pais (Nov. 17, 2017.

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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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