El Salvador’s Supreme Court Invalidates Salvadoran Amnesty Law

On July 13, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of El Salvador decided, 4 to 1, that the country’s amnesty law of 1993 was unconstitutional. This post will examine that decision and a subsequent post will discuss the impact of that decision on the pending criminal case in Spain regarding the 1989 murders of the Jesuit priests in El Salvador.

 The Court’s Decision.[1]

The Chamber held that the country’s amnesty law of 1993 was unconstitutional because it was “contrary to the access to justice” and the “protection of fundamental rights” as impeding the state from fulfilling its obligation to investigate, try and punish grave violations of those rights. Indeed, the court said the government has an obligation to “investigate, identify and sanction the material and intellectual authors of human rights crimes and grave war crimes” in its civil war and to provide reparations to victims.[2] The court also suggested that prosecutors begin with about 30 cases highlighted by a U.N. Truth Commission in March 1993.[3] The cases include massacres, assassinations and kidnappings by combatants from both the armed forces and the guerrilla army called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). One of the most prominent was the 1989 murders of the Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter.

The court’s announcement of its decision stated that the 1992 Peace Accords ending the civil war had contained no provision for an amnesty; that the country’s National Assembly had no power to grant an amnesty to persons who had committed crimes against humanity or war crimes constituting grave violations of human rights and that its constitution and international law of human rights required the conclusion of invalidity.

The court also stated that the crimes against humanity during the civil war were not individual and isolated acts, but the result of guidelines and orders issued by organized apparatuses of power with hierarchies of command.  This implies criminal responsibility of the direct actors, those who gave the orders for the crimes and those commanders who failed to countermand the orders and thereby failed to exercise control over the hierarchies.

Much to the surprise of this blogger as a retired U.S. attorney, one of the Chamber’s four judges in this very case, Florentine Menendez, made a public statement about the decision. He said, “We’re not raising hatred or reopening wounds,” but rather emphasizing “the strength of the constitution and the right to life and justice” for the victims. The decision rescues “the jurisprudence of the Inter-American system of human rights protection to heal the wounds of the past and finally close the page and get a national reconciliation.”

Positive Reactions to the Decision.[4]

The next day the decision was celebrated at a ceremony in San Salvador’s Cuscatlan Park, the site of a 275-foot granite wall etched with the names of 30,000 civilians killed in the country’s civil war and the locations of nearly 200 massacres committed between 1970 and 1991. Below are photographs of David Morales,El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman, who made remarks that day, and of part of the granite wall.

David Morales
David Morales
Cucatlan Park
Cucatlan Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

At this celebration, David Morales said, “If prosecutors and judges are willing to comply with the ruling, it will generate for the first time in El Salvador the first glimmers of reconciliation.” He added that many Latin American countries have already abolished their amnesty laws and begun to prosecute crimes dating to the civil wars and military dictatorships of the late 20th century.

Benjamin Cuellar, former director of the human rights institute at the University of Central America (UCA) and one of the petitioners in the lawsuit, said, “This is the first step that will take El Salvador to true reconciliation; so that the institutions work and bring to justice those who commit crimes, regardless of who they are.”

UCA, the home of the murdered Jesuit priests, stated, “The majority of the victims are more noble than the victimizers.   They do not want vengeance, they want the injustice to be recognized.   And the State is obliged to honor them.  It is time to put the victims in the center.   The new phase that is opened for the country is positive, it means an advance for democracy and justice, and constitutes a late but just recognition for those who had been disrespected in their memory and in their pain.”

The Center for Justice and Accountability, which has been involved in various Salvadoran human rights cases, including the Spanish case regarding the murder of the Jesuit priests, said, “Today’s decision marks a moment many of us have hoped for, for a long time, as we struggled by the victims’ side. The victims have been demanding justice since the peace was signed and the brave truth commission report was published. The amnesty law passed only seven days after was a betrayal to the victims’ hopes and the whole peace process. With it, justice was excluded forever. Today’s decision brings back hope for investigation and prosecution both inside and outside the country.”

A group of independent United Nations human rights experts declared: “This historic decision for the country brings hope to victims and confidence in the legal system…. More than twenty years after the end of the conflict, this decision will restore the fundamental rights of victims to justice and full reparations.”

Amnesty International praised the decision: “Today is an historic day for human rights in El Salvador. By turning its back on a law that has done nothing but let criminals get away with serious human rights violations for decades, the country is finally dealing with its tragic past.”

Another voice of support for the decision came in a New York Times editorial calling it “ a remarkable ruling that opens the door for relatives of victims of war crimes to hold torturers and killers accountable.” “However,” the editorial continued, “there appears to be little political will in El Salvador to revisit a painful chapter of its history in courtrooms. Politicians across the political spectrum have questioned the viability of war crimes tribunals at a time when the country’s judicial institutions are overwhelmed by endemic gang violence.”  Nevertheless, the Times suggested that El Salvador should create “a prosecution unit and gives it the tools and independence to pursue the most emblematic cases of the conflict” like the El Mozote Massacre,” which has been discussed in prior posts.

Negative Reactions to the Decision.

The lack of political will referenced in the Times editorial can be seen in the country’s President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a member of the FLMN, asserted that his government had always been committed to the restoration of the victims of the war and to building a culture committed to human rights.   However, he said the court’s decision did not meet “the real problems of the country and far from solving the daily problems of Salvadorans, worsens them.  Judgments of the Constitutional Chamber ignore or fail to measure the effects on our living together in society, and do not contribute to strengthening institutionality.”

Another FLMN leader had a similar reaction. The former president of the National Assembly, Siegfried Reyes, said the decision was “surprising and seeks to weaken and hit the governance and hit the security plans that the government is implementing effectively.”

The country’s Minister of Defense, David Munguia Payés, asserted that the decision was a “political error” and would be a setback to the process of pacification which had occurred since the end of the civil war.”  He openly worried that the ruling would turn into a “witch hunt.”

Mauricio Ernesto Vargas, a retired general who represented the armed forces in the peace negotiations, said the court’s ruling could intensify political polarization in a country with no shortage of problems: a gang-violence epidemic, a migration crisis, crop failures and economic stagnation.

 The country’s Attorney General, Douglas Melendez, had a more nuanced view. He said, “We respect from the institutional point of view this ruling. We will do what we have to do, we will fulfill our constitutional responsibilities.”

The conservative political party ARENA (founded by a leader of the death squads in the 1970s and 1980s, and in control of the government when atrocities like the massacre of the Jesuits occurred and the authors of the amnesty law) published an official statement urging respect for the court’s decisions, but also noting that the decisions would present challenges for the process of reconciliation and the strengthening of democracy and institutions.

Now we will have to see whether this decision leads to any Salvadoran investigations and prosecutions for the serious human rights crimes of its civil war and to a resumption of Spain’s criminal case regarding the 1989 murders of the Jesuit priests. (The latter subject will be covered in a subsequent post.)

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[1] El Salvador Supreme Court (Constitutional Chamber), Press Release (July 13, 2016), http://static.ow.ly/docs/20.%20Comunicado%2013-VII-2016%20Ley%20de%20amnist%C3%ADa_50Yr.pdf; Post war 1993 amnesty law declared unconstitutional, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (July 13, 2016), http://luterano.blogspot.com/2016/07/post-war-1993-amnesty-law-declared.html; Malkin & Palumbo, Salvadoran Court Overturns Wartime Amnesty, Paving Way for Prosecutions, N.Y. Times (July 14, 2016); Maslin, El Salvador strikes down amnesty for crimes during its civil war, Wash. Post (July 14, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/el-salvador-strikes-down-amnesty-for-crimes-during-its-civil-war/2016/07/14/5eeef2ec-49bf-11e6-8dac-0c6e4accc5b1_story.html.

[2] Prior posts have discussed the Amnesty Law: International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case, dwkcommentaries.com (June 11, 2011),  https://dwkcommentaries.com/2011/06/11/international-criminal-justice-el-salvadors-general-amnesty-law-and-its-impact-on-the-jesuits-caseEl Salvador’s Current Controversy Over Its General Amnesty Law and Supreme Court, dwkcommentaries.com (June 16, 2011), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2011/06/16/el-salvadors-current-controversy-over-its-general-amnesty-law-and-supreme-court; The El Mozote Massacre: The Truth Commission for El Salvador and the Subsequent General Amnesty Law and Dismissal of the Criminal Case, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 13, 2012), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2012/12/13/the-el-mozote-massacre-the-truth-commission-for-el-salvador-and-the-subsequent-salvadoran-general-amnesty-law-and-dismissal-of-criminal-case. It should be noted, however, that U.S. federal courts have held that the General Amnesty Law is limited to Salvadoran judicial proceedings and thus does not bar U.S. civil lawsuits for money damages against Salvadoran defendants. (El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law in U.S. Federal Courts, dwkcommentaries.com (June 14, 2011), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2011/06/14/el-salvadors-general-amnesty-law-in-u-s-federal-court-cases.

[3] Prior posts have discussed the Truth Commission: International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in the Truth Commission for El Salvador, dwkcommentaries.com (June 9, 2011), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2011/06/09/international-criminal-justice-the-jesuits-case-in-the-truth-commission-for-el-salvador; The Salvadoran Truth Commission’s Investigation of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen, dwkcommentaries (Dec. 19, 2011), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2011/12/19/the-salvadoran-truth-commissions-investigation-of-the-murders-of-the-four-american-churchwomen; The El Mozote Massacre: The Truth Commission for El Salvador and the Subsequent General Amnesty Law and Dismissal of the Criminal Case, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 13, 2012), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2012/12/13/the-el-mozote-massacre-the-truth-commission-for-el-salvador-and-the-subsequent-salvadoran-general-amnesty-law-and-dismissal-of-criminal-case.

[4] Thanks for Tim’s El Salvador Blog (http://luterano.blog spot.com) for much of the information on the reactions to the Chamber’s decision.  David Morales: The sentence “is a tool of greater scope to demand justice, DiarioCoLatino (July 14, 2016) http://www.diariocolatino.com/david-morales-la-sentencia-es-una-herramienta-de-mayores-alcances-para-exigir-justicia; Dalton, Declared unconstitutional the amnesty in El Salvador, El Pais (July 14, 2016) http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2016/07/15/america/1468541983_506876.html.

 

 

 

 

U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals Affirms Deportation (Removal) of Former Salvadoran General José Guillermo Garcia

As mentioned in a prior post, in October 2009, the Department of Homeland Security charged that General Jose Guillermo Garcia, who had been residing in the U.S. since his retirement from the Salvadoran military, was removable (or deportable) from the U.S. under the Immigration and Nationality Act on the grounds that he had committed, ordered, incited, or otherwise participated in torture and extrajudicial killings in El Salvador.

The seven-day trial or hearing on these charges before an immigration judge was held in February 2013, and a year later the judge issued his 66-page decision in the case ordering that Garcia should be removed (or deported) from the U.S.This conclusion was based upon the judge’s findings that:

  • “As head of the armed forces and the most powerful person in El Salvador, [García] fostered, and allowed to thrive, an institutional atmosphere in which the Salvadoran Armed Forces preyed upon defenseless civilians under the guise of fighting a war against communist subversives. Instead of institutional changes that would decrease the incidents of killings and torture by the military, [García] failed to stamp out death squads within the security forces.  Likewise, despite contemporaneous evidence that members of the military had been involved in the [1980] assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, [1] a man who could have been an ally in bringing about change and peace in El Salvador, [García] failed to adequately investigate.”
  • García helped conceal the involvement of soldiers who killed four American churchwomen in 1980.[2]
  • He “knew or should have known” that army troops had slaughtered the villagers, including women and children, in the hamlet of El Mozote in 1981.[3]

On December 15, 2015, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals upheld and finalized the removal order of Garcia in a decision that has not yet been made public. Whether he would exercise his right to appeal to a U.S. court of appeals was not immediately known.

This case has been conducted under the auspices of the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), a California-based human rights non-governmental organization. Its Legal Advisor Carolyn Patty Blum applauded the BIA’s decision. She said: “Minister of Defense Jose Guillermo García was the most powerful man in El Salvador during a reign of state terror in which tens of thousands of innocent Salvadorans were slaughtered.  CJA applauds the Department of Homeland Security for its vigorous pursuit of García before the Immigration Court and the Board of Immigration Appeals and thanks our client Dr. Juan Romagoza, once again, for testifying in court proceedings against General García, as he had in the case of former Minister of Defense Eugenio Vides Casanova, deported earlier this year. We hope that García can be swiftly removed from the U.S. and face justice in El Salvador for the El Mozote massacre and the many other crimes committed under his command. It has been a long battle for justice for our clients and other victims who suffered horrendous repression during García’s rule in El Salvador.”

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[1] This blog has published many posts about Oscar Romero.

[2] This blog has published many posts about the American Churchwomen.

[3] This blog has published many posts about El Mozote.

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals Decides Former Salvadoran General Should Be Deported

Vides Casanova
Vides Casanova

On March 10, 2015, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decided that former Salvadoran General Vides Casanova should be deported from the U.S. [1]

This was the conclusion of the BIA in dismissing Casanova’s appeal from an immigration judge, after trial, deciding that he had had a direct role in the abuse and killings of civilians because of his “command responsibility” as the top military officer of that country. “This is not a case in which isolated or random human rights abuses took place at the hands of rogue subordinates,” the BIA said. General Vides “affirmatively and knowingly shielded subordinates from the consequences of their acts and promoted a culture of tolerance for human rights abuses.”

Specifically in the case of the December 1980 rapes and murders of the four American churchwomen, the Board found that General Vides “knew that National Guardsmen confessed to involvement in the murders, failed to competently investigate the Guardsmen under his command, obstructed the United States’ efforts to investigate, and delayed bringing the perpetrators to justice.” [2]

The BIA decision also reviewed the torture of two Salvadorans, Juan Romagoza Arce and Daniel Alvarado:

  • During 22 days in 1980, Mr. Romagoza was “beaten, shocked with electrical probes all over his body, sexually assaulted with a stick, and hung from the ceiling for several days” and also shot in the arm, his wounds left to fill with worms. Mr. Romagoza reported that General Vides saw him twice during his captivity.
  • Alvarado was tortured for seven days until he falsely confessed to killing a U.S. military adviser, but after an F.B.I. investigation, U.S. officials repeatedly advised General Vides, according to the Board’s decision, that his forces were holding and torturing the wrong man. [3]

As the BIA said, “Congress clearly intended that commanders should be held accountable if their subordinates commit torture and extrajudicial killings.”

General Vides has a right to appeal the BIA’s decision to a U.S. court of appeals so we wait to see if that will happen and the results of any such appeal.

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[1] Matter of Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 26 I&N Dec. 494 (BIA 2015); Preston, General in El Salvador Torture and Killings Can Be Deported, Immigration Court Rules, N.Y. Times (Mar. 11, 2015). Prior posts reviewed the American churchwomen’s work in El Salvador; their 1980 murders; my pilgrimage to the sites of their work and murders; the Salvadoran non-judicial investigations of the crime; the Salvadoran judicial investigation and prosecution of this crime; the Salvadoran Truth Commission’s investigation of the crime; the unsuccessful U.S. civil lawsuit against the generals over the crime under the Torture Victims Protection Act; a 2014 New York Times retro-report of the crime; and the Immigration Judge’s finding, after trial, that Vides should be deported.

[3] A previous post discussed the civil liability of Salvadoran Generals Vides and Garcia for torture of these individuals under the U.S. Torture Victims Protection Act.

Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador

In my first visit to El Salvador in April 1989 I did not know anything about the University of Central America (Universidad de Centro America or UCA) or about its Jesuit professors.

UCA's Romero Chapel
UCA’s Romero Chapel
Fr.  Jon Sobrino
Fr. Jon Sobrino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That started to change when the other members of my delegation and I visited UCA’s beautiful, peaceful campus, in contrast to the noisy bustle of the rest of San Salvador, and when we had an hour’s calm, reasoned conversation with one of its professors, Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J., a noted liberation theologian. I came away impressed with UCA and with Sobrino.

I, therefore, was shocked six months later to hear the news of the November 16, 1989, murder of six of UCA’s Jesuit professors and their housekeeper and daughter. How could such a horrible crime happen to such intelligent, peaceful human beings in that tranquil, academic setting?

Martyred Jesuits, Housekeeper & Daughter
Martyred Jesuits, Housekeeper & Daughter

I was even more appalled when I learned about the selfless, courageous lives of the murdered Jesuits who used their minds, education and spirits to help the poor people of that country and to work for bringing about a negotiated end to its horrible civil war.

Their deaths were repetitions of the horrible assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980, who like the Jesuits had used his mind, education and spirit to help the poor people of his country and to condemn violent violations of human rights. The same was true of another Salvadoran Roman Catholic priest, Rutilio Grande, who was murdered in 1977 because of his protests against the regime’s persecution of the poor people, and of the 1980 murders of the four American churchwomen, who worked with the poor in that country.

Thus, Romero, Grande, the four American churchwomen and the murdered Jesuits are forever linked in my mind as profound Christian witnesses and martyrs. Their examples have strengthened my Christian faith to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.

UCA's Romero Chapel
UCA’s Romero Chapel
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia

 

All of these experiences have inspired me to learn more about El Salvador, Romero, Grande, the churchwomen and the Jesuits’ Christian witness in the midst of violence and threats to their own lives. On my subsequent five trips to that country, I always visit UCA for prayer in the Romero Chapel where the Jesuits’ bodies are buried and in the beautiful chapel of a cancer hospital where Romero was assassinated.

On my 2000 visit to El Salvador for the 20th anniversary of Oscar Romero’s assassination, my group visited UCA to spend time with its then Rector, Dean Brackley, a Jesuit priest from the U.S. who went to El Salvador to help UCA after the murders of his brother priests. He impressed me as a calm voice of reason and passion in UCA’s ministry of helping the poor and the country.

In 2010 I returned to El Salvador for the 30th anniversary of Romero’s assassination. On my delegation’s visit to UCA, we spent time with its then Rector, José Maria Tojeira, S.J.. He was an amazingly serene and soft-spoken man. He told us he was a new “church bureaucrat” (the Jesuit Provincial for Central America) at UCA in November 1989 and lived nearby, but not on the campus. During the night of November 15th-16th he heard gunfire and thought there must have been a skirmish between the Salvadoran security forces and the guerrillas. The next morning he went to the campus and was one of the first people to see the dead bodies of his six fellow Jesuits and their cook and her daughter. He nonchalantly said to our group, “That morning I thought I was the next one to be killed.” Later that day he went to his office and found faxed messages of support and solidarity from people all over the world. Then in the same casual manner, he said he thought, “Well, maybe I am not the next to be killed.”

As a result, my cloud of Salvadoran witnesses includes Oscar Romero; Rutilio Grande; the American churchwomen; the Jesuit priests; Fr. Brackley; Fr. Tojeira; Bishop Menardo Gomez of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, who escaped a death squad on the night the Jesuits were murdered; Salvador Ibarra, who in 1989 was a lawyer for the Salvadoran Lutheran human rights office; and my Salvadoran asylum clients. Outside of El Salvador, of course, I am impressed by another Jesuit, Pope Francis.

I have been humbled to learn about the incredible courage and minds of the Jesuits, not just at UCA, but at other Jesuit universities that are generally regarded as the best of Roman Catholic institutions of higher learning. Simultaneously I am puzzled how such a marvelous group of religious men could have emerged from the Jesuits who were the shock-troops of the Counter-Reformation and did so many horrible things during the Spanish Inquisition.

All of this also inspired me to become a pro bono lawyer for Salvadorans and later others (an Afghani, a Burmese man, two Somali men and two Colombian families) who were seeking asylum or other legal status that would enable them to remain in the U.S. and escape persecution in their own countries. I always have regarded this as the most important and spiritually rewarding thing I have ever done. As I did so, I often reflected that I was able to do this in the secure and comfortable legal office of a large Minneapolis law firm. I did not have to risk my life to help others as did my Salvadoran saints.

After I had retired from practicing law in 2001, the Jesuits along with Archbishop Oscar Romero continued to inspire me to learn more about international human rights law as I co-taught a course in that subject at the University of Minnesota Law School from 2002 through 2010. In the process, I was amazed to discover the array of inter-related ways the international community had created to seek to enforce international human rights norms in a world still based essentially on the sovereignty of nation states.

I then was inspired to use my legal research and writing skills to investigate how these various ways had been used to attempt to bring to justice the perpetrators of the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the rapes and murders of the American churchwomen and the murderers of the Jesuit priests and then to share the results of that research with others on this blog. Many posts have been written about Romero, including the various unsuccessful legal proceedings to identify and punish those responsible for that crime. Other posts have discussed the criminal case still pending in Spain over the murders of the Jesuits and their housekeeper and daughter while another post summarized other legal proceedings that unsuccessfully sought to assign criminal responsibility for the murders of the Jesuit priests other than the brief imprisonment in El Salvador of two military officers.

I also have written the following other posts prompted by the 25th anniversary celebration of the lives of the priests and commemoration of their murders:

I give thanks to God for leading me in this path of discovery and inspiration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Developments in Using U.S. Immigration Law To Enforce International Human Rights

As noted in a prior post, U.S. immigration law provides at least two means of enforcing international human rights.

Removal or Deportation from the U.S. 

Foreigners can be deported or removed from the U.S. if they “ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide . . . or . . . any act of torture . . . or . . . any extrajudicial killing.” (Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 sec. 5501, 118 Stat. 3638, 3740 (2004).

Responsibility for enforcing these provisions lies in the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit (HRVWCU) within the National Security Investigations Division (NSID) of the Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) Directorate of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the Department of Homeland Security.

This unit conducts investigations focused on foreign human rights violations by individuals in the U.S. in an effort to prevent the U.S. from becoming a safe haven to those individuals who engage in the commission of war crimes, genocide, torture and other forms of serious human rights abuses from conflicts around the globe. Since fiscal year 2004, ICE has arrested more than 250 individuals for human rights-related violations under various criminal and/or immigration statutes. During that same period, ICE has denied more than 117 individuals from obtaining entry visas to the United States and created more than 20,000 subject records, which prevented identified human-rights violators from attempting to enter the United States. In addition, ICE successfully obtained deportation orders to physically remove more than 590 known or suspected human rights violators from the United States.

Currently, ICE is pursuing more than 1,900 leads and removal cases that involve suspected human rights violators from nearly 96 different countries.

Illustrating such cases are two former Salvadoran military officers, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo Garcia,[1] and a former Guatemalan military officer, Pedro Pimentel Rios.

In 2012, an immigration judge ruled that Casanova could be deported for his role in multiple acts of killings and torture committed by the Salvadoran military, including the 1980 slayings of the four American churchwomen.

On February 6, 2014, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) heard Casanova’s appeal from this decision. The main issue was his argument that the removal order was unjustified because the U.S. tacitly had approved the aggressive tactics of the Salvadoran military. In response the ICE attorney argued that U.S. support for the Salvadoran military did not excuse Casanova’s actions and that the U.S. repeatedly had demanded that the Salvadoran military clean up its human rights record. One of the three BIA judges asked whether Casanova was “too far up the chain [of command] to control those units?” The ICE attorney said “no” as Casanova himself testified at his own trial that he kept tight control of the unit. Once the BIA issues its decision, the losing party has the right to appeal to a federal court of appeals.

On February 26, 2014, an immigration judge ordered Garcia to be removed or deported from the U.S. after a trial had determined that he had helped conceal the involvement of soldiers who killed four American churchwomen in 1980 and that he “knew or should have known” that army troops had slaughtered the villagers, including women and children, in the hamlet of El Mozote in 1981. Garcia plans to appeal to the BIA.

In July 2010, ICE charged Guatemalan Pedro Pimentel Rios with being deportable for having assisted or otherwise participated in extrajudicial killings during the Dos Erres massacre in that country. In May 2011 an immigration judge, after trial, determined that he had in fact participated in extrajudicial killings in that massacre and ordered his removal to his home country. That removal occurred in July 2011.

After his return to Guatemala, he was tried by a three-judge court and found guilty of participation in the massacre and sentenced to imprisonment of 6,060 years (30 years for each of the 201 victims). This sentence was largely symbolic since Guatemalan law does not permit prison terms longer than 50 years.

U.S. Conviction and Imprisonment

Foreigners who had gained legal entry or presence in the U.S. can be criminally prosecuted for committing fraud in obtaining a U.S. visa or other immigration benefit (18 U.S.C. § 1546(a)) or committing perjury in statements to U.S. immigration officials (18 U.S.C. § 1621(2)) for failure to disclose their involvement in foreign human rights violations.

Responsibility for enforcing these provisions lies in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, which “primarily investigates and prosecutes cases against human rights violators and other international criminals . . . for genocide, torture, war crimes, and recruitment or use of child soldiers, and for immigration and naturalization fraud arising out of efforts to hide their involvement in such crimes.”

Examples of such cases are those involving former Salvadoran military officer, Innocente Orlando Montano, and two former Guatemalan military officers, Gilberto Jordan and Jorge Sosa Orantes.

Montano allegedly was involved in various human rights violations in his country, including the November 1989 murder of the six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter.[5] Based on his guilty plea, on August 27, 2013, the federal court in Boston, Massachusetts sentenced Inocente Orlando Montano to 21 months in prison for violating U.S. immigration laws.

In 2010, Guatemalan Gilberto Jordan was arrested in Florida for allegedly lying on naturalization forms that allowed him to become a U.S. citizen. He pleaded guilty to failing to disclose on those forms that he had participated in the 1982 killings of at least 162 countrymen in the village of Dos Erres. In September 2010 a federal judge sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment

On October 1, 2013, Jorge Sosa Orantes, a Guatemalan military officer who lead a massacre of a village in his home country, was convicted by a federal jury for making false statements and unlawfully procuring U.S. citizenship when he applied for U.S. residency in 1997 and when he obtained citizenship a decade later. On February 10, 2014, the presiding judge sentenced Sosa with a revocation of his U.S. citizenship and imprisonment for 10 years.

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[1] Garcia and Casanova jointly had been held civilly liable for torture in their country by U.S. federal courts under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA), but who jointly had escaped similar civil liability under the TVPA for the torture and murder of the four American churchwomen in El Salvador.

U.S. Orders Deportation of Former Salvadoran General

 

General Jose Guillermo Garcia
General Jose Guillermo Garcia

 

As mentioned in a prior post, in October 2009, the Department of Homeland Security charged that General Jose Guillermo Garcia, who had been residing in the U.S. since his retirement from the Salvadoran military, was removable (or deportable) from the U.S. under the Immigration and Nationality Act on the grounds that he had committed, ordered, incited, or otherwise participated in torture and extrajudicial killings in El Salvador.

 

According to that post, on February 27, 2013, an immigration judge in Miami, Florida concluded a seven-day trial or hearing on these charges.

On February 26, 2014, the judge issued his 66-page decision in the case.[1] The judge found that:

  • “As head of the armed forces and the most powerful person in El Salvador, [García] fostered, and allowed to thrive, an institutional atmosphere in which the Salvadoran Armed Forces preyed upon defenseless civilians under the guise of fighting a war against communist subversives. Instead of institutional changes that would decrease the incidents of killings and torture by the military, [García] failed to stamp out death squads within the security forces.  Likewise, despite contemporaneous evidence that members of the military had been involved in the [1980] assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero,[[2]] a man who could have been an ally in bringing about change and peace in El Salvador, [García] failed to adequately investigate.”

The judge also found that General García helped conceal the involvement of soldiers who killed four American churchwomen in 1980.[3] In addition, he “knew or should have known” that army troops had slaughtered the villagers, including women and children, in the hamlet of El Mozote in 1981.[4]

As a result, the judge ordered that Garcia should be removed (or deported) from the U.S. The lawyer for Mr. Garcia said there will be an appeal.

——————————————————————–

[1] This summary of the decision is based upon a New York Times article and a more extensive analysis by the Center for Justice and Accountability. The actual decision is also available on the web.

[2] This blog has many posts about Archbishop Romero.

[3] This blog also has posts about the ministries and murders of the American churchwomen.

[4] The El Mozote massacre also has been a subject in this blog.

The Witness of a Lawyer for Salvadoran Soldier Accused of 1980 Murder of American Churchwomen

In a prior post I described my April 1989 meeting in El Salvador with Salvador Ibarra. He told me and others that a Salvadoran judge had appointed him to represent one of the Salvadoran national guardsmen accused of raping and murdering the four American church women in December 1980.[1]

Someone from the U.S. Embassy, he told us, had asked Ibarra to call a press conference and announce that he had investigated and had found no involvement of higher officials in this horrible crime. This, however, was not true, and he refused to hold a press conference. In response he received death threats that prompted him and his family to flee the country.

I recently came across a May 1985 article that has additional information about his involvement in this notorious case.

The article confirms that Ibarra was appointed by a Salvadoran court to represent one of the national guardsmen accused of this crime, that Ibarra was pressured to not contradict a false statement that the possibility of a cover-up by higher officials had been investigated and found to be baseless and that he received death threats if he did not go along with this strategy.

This pressure, the article reports Ibarra having said, came from other defense lawyers. One was the half-brother of the director of the Salvadoran National Guard while another was a childhood friend of the Salvadoran Minister of Defense at the time, Jose Guillermo Garcia.[2]

When Ibarra told the other lawyers he would not cooperate in this plan, the article states Ibarra said he “was abducted by Salvadoran security forces, held prisoner at national guard headquarters and tortured.” The purpose of his detention and torture, Ibarra said in the article, “was to get him off the case, either by killing him or forcing him to flee the country.”

Sadly Ibarra is deceased, and I cannot ask him questions about this article. But neither account of his involvement in the case directly contradicts the other. Perhaps both are true. There undoubtedly are additional details about this case that probably would emerge in an extended conversation that unfortunately will never happen.

In any event, Ibarra is still a witness and inspiration to me of a courageous lawyer who risked his life to stand up for the truth and zealously to represent his client in a very important case. Moreover, as discussed in the prior post, after having fled to the U.S. because of these pressures, he later returned to his country to be a lawyer for the Lutheran Church’s human rights office, an occupation that again put his life on the line during the Salvadoran Civil War.

Muchas gracias, Salvador Ibarra!


[1] Many prior posts have discussed this horrible crime, its various judicial and non-judicial investigations and my visits to the site of the crime and of the women’s graves in El Salvador.

[2] Other posts have discussed Garcia’s involvement in legal proceedings about this and other crimes in that country.

 

Enforcement of International Human Rights Norms with U.S. Immigration Laws

Three methods of enforcing international human rights norms are found in U.S. laws relating to immigration.[1]

Introduction

First, certain foreign human rights violators can be deported or removed from the U.S. As section 237(a)(4)(D) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) states: “Any alien . . . in and admitted to the [U.S.] . . . shall . . .  be removed if the alien . . . (ii) ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide, as defined in section 1091(a) of title 18, United States Code . . . ; (iii) outside the [U.S.] . . . committed, ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in . . . (I)any act of torture, as defined in section 2340 of title 18, United States Code; or (II) under color of law of any foreign nation, any extrajudicial killing, as defined in section 3(a) of the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (28 U.S.C. 1350 note).” [2]

Generals Casanova (left) and Garcia (right)
Generals Casanova (left) and Garcia (right)

This provision of U.S. immigration law currently is being used with respect to former Salvadoran military officers Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo Garcia, who jointly had been held civilly liable for torture in their country by U.S. federal courts under the Alien Tort Statute(ATS)[3] and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA),[4] but who jointly had escaped similar civil liability under the TVPA for the torture and murder of the four American churchwomen in El Salvador.

These two immigration cases were brought by the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), whose mission is to “prevent the admission of foreign war crimes suspects, persecutors and human rights abusers into the [U.S.],” to “identify and prosecute individuals who have been involved and/or responsible for the commission of human rights abuses across the globe” and to “remove, whenever possible, those offenders who are located in the [U.S.].”

Second, certain foreign human rights violators who had gained legal entry or presence in the U.S. can be criminally prosecuted for committing fraud in obtaining a U.S. visa or other immigration benefit (18 U.S.C. § 1546(a)) or committing perjury in statements to U.S. immigration officials (18 U.S.C. § 1621(2)).

Innocente Orlando Montano
Innocente Orlando Montano

This set of provisions currently is being used with respect to another former Salvadoran military officer,  Innocente Orlando Montano, who allegedly was involved in various human rights violations in his country, including the November 1989 murder of the six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter.[5]

Sergei Magnitsky Grave
Sergei Magnitsky Grave

Third, last year the U.S. adopted the so-called Magnitsky Act which bans the issuance of U.S. visas to Russian individuals involved in certain human rights violations, including the detention, abuse or death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and auditor who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after investigating fraud involving Russian tax officials.[6]

Discussion

 Vides Casanova

After an eight-day trial, a U.S. immigration judge on February 22, 2012, issued his 151-page decision on charges by DHS that Casanova, who had been residing in the U.S. since his retirement from the Salvadoran military in 1989, was removable from the U.S. on the grounds that he had committed, ordered, incited, or otherwise participated in torture and extrajudicial killings in El Salvador under the previously cited INA provisions. [7]

The immigration judge found that Casanova had ” assisted or otherwise participated in (a) “the extrajudicial killings of the four American churchwomen, five other named individuals, 29 unnamed others plus “countless civilians committed by the Salvadoran Armed Forces and Salvadoran National Guard while under [his] . . . command” and (b) “the torture of [Arce]” and “countless unnamed individuals [who had been] tortured by the Salvadoran [security forces] while under [his] . . .  command.” Therefore, the immigration judge concluded that Casanova was removable from the U.S. under the previously cited statutory provision.

On August 16, 2012, the Immigration Judge denied Casanova’s application for cancellation of the removal order. The Judge held that the INA barred Casanova from seeking cancellation of removal, that under Board of Immigration (BIA) precedent immigration judges could not apply the doctrine of equitable estoppel against the U.S. Government and that the statutory provision authorizing his removal that was added in 2004 was explicitly made retroactive, thus rendering any contrary international law irrelevant.

On September 17, 2012, Vides Casanova appealed the latter decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals, where it is now pending.

Jose Guillermo Garcia

In October 2009, DHS charged that Garcia, who had been residing in the U.S. since his retirement from the Salvadoran military, was removable from the U.S. under the previously cited INA provisions on the grounds that he had committed, ordered, incited, or otherwise participated in torture and extrajudicial killings in El Salvador.[8]

On February 27, 2013, an immigration judge in Miami, Florida concluded a seven-day trial or hearing on these charges. Closing briefs are due on June 3 and reply briefs by July 5. Thereafter the judge will issue a “timely written decision.”

The trial record consists of nine volumes of documents and the testimony of former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert E. White; Dr. Juan Romagoza Arce (a plaintiff in the successful ATS and TVPA case against Garcia and Casanova); Dr. Terry Karl (expert witness); Garcia; and Ana Carolina Montoya (Garcia’s daughter).

  • Ambassador White testified to his frequent conversations with Garcia from March 1980 to early 1981, when the Ambassador urged Garcia to clean up human rights abuses and hold the perpetrators responsible. Garcia, however, failed and refused to do so even though he had admitted to White that 1% of the military were in the death squads. Garcia had expressed approval of the November 1980 assassination of the leadership of an opposition political party and of the strategy of assassinations as a means of dealing with dissidents.
  • Arce testified to his abduction in December 1980 and his horrendous torture over 22 days at a military barracks and the National Guard headquarters.
  • Dr. Karl, a Stanford University political science professor who has studied El Salvador for many years, testified that during the period Garcia was Minister of Defense (October 1979-April 1983) (1) he was the most powerful person, de facto and de jure, in the country; (2) the Salvadoran military engaged in widespread and systematic attacks on civilians; (3) Garcia was in control of the military; (4) Garcia presided over instituting measures of state terror; (5) Garcia’s actions gave a “green light” for human rights abuses; (6) Garcia promoted and protected known human rights abusers and fostered impunity of his fellow officers; and (7) Garcia repeatedly denied human rights abuses were occurring. She also described the widespread and systematic use of torture by the various units of the Salvadoran security forces.
  • Garcia testified that he did not commit or order any acts of torture or extrajudicial killings. He  admitted that he knew there were widespread human rights abuses in the military while he was Minister of Defense; that “was public knowledge” and “can’t be denied.” He, however, had tried to identify and hold the perpetrators accountable, but the available evidence was insufficient to have successful prosecutions.
  • During questioning by the immigration judge, Garcia repeatedly admitted that he know of torture and other abuses by the military, but that he lacked control. Yes, he said, he did bear responsibility for those abuses, but not culpability.

Innocente Orlando Montano

In February 2012 the federal court in Massachusetts indicted Montano for perjury and lying to U.S. immigration officials in connection with his applications for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the U.S. under the previously cited criminal code provisions.

On September 13th he pleaded guilty to three counts of immigration fraud and three counts of perjury as a result of (a) his stating a false date of entry to the U.S. that qualified for TPS instead of his actual date of entry which did not so qualify and (b) his false statements to immigration officials that he had never served in a military unit, had never received military weapons training and had never been involved in persecution of others.

Since then the parties have been exchanging briefs on the appropriate sentence. The Government is recommending  one of 51 months while Montano argues that is too long.

The Government’s Sentencing Memorandum of January 8, 2013, makes an interesting and, in my opinion, compelling argument for its recommendation. Here are its main points:

  • During the Salvadoran civil war, Montano quickly rose to the highest echelon of its security forces, and the forces he commanded were responsible for death squad activities and numerous other human rights abuses. According to expert witness, Dr. Terry Karl, there were at least 1,169 such violations, including 65 extrajudicial killings, 51 disappearances and 520 cases of torture. His appointment as Vice Minister for Public Security coincided with “a strong resurgence [in such crimes] . . . aimed at prominent civilians and civilian groups.”
  • Before the November 1989 murder of the Jesuit priests, Montano was an active participant in trying to publicly discredit the priests, including his publicly calling Ignacio Ellacuria, the Jesuit Rector of the University of Central America (UCA), as one “fully identified with subversive movements.”
  • In November 1989, according to the 1993 report of the Truth Commission for El Salvador, Montano was a member of a “small group of elite officers, one of whom gave the official order to ‘kill Ellacuria and leave no witnesses.” (Later in 1993 the Ad Hoc Commission, which was established by the Peace Accords that ended the Salvadoran civil war, recommended that virtually the entire military command, including Montano, be removed from office.)
  • After the murder of the Jesuits, Montano aided the cover up of the involvement of the security forces in this crime. He publicly insisted that the FMLN, not the security forces, had committed the crime. Although Montano initially was responsible for investigating the crime, he did not do anything to do so. He also pressured lower level military officers not to disclose the orders to kill Ellacuria and leave no witnesses to the Salvadoran court in subsequent charge of  investigating the crime. In addition, Montano refused to cooperate with, or be interviewed by, the investigating judge, and in 2000 publicly rejected the claim that he was the indirect author of the murders, rebuked the Jesuits at UCA of “raking up the past” and called the reopening of the case as “orchestrated by the left” as part of “an international leftist plan.”
  • When Montano left El Salvador for the U.S. in 2001, there was “a great likelihood [he] . . . was motivated, at least in part, . . . [by] fear that he was vulnerable to prosecution for his role in the Jesuit murders.”
  • A fear of such vulnerability grew out of the arrest in 1998 of Chilean General Pinochet and of his being stripped of his immunity and ordered in 2001 to stand trial in Chile; the 1999 case against an Argentine military officer; a case against a Honduran general; and the June 2001 conviction of a Guatemalan military officer for the extrajudicial execution of a Roman Catholic bishop.
  • Also supporting such a likely fear was the Salvadoran election of March 2000 which gave the FMLN (the former guerrilla organization) a legislative majority and which immediately thereafter precipitated calls for reopening the Jesuit case from the Rector of UCA and the Archbishop of San Salvador. To the same effect were decisions in 2000 by the country’s courts that its General Amnesty Law could not be applied to human rights violations by public officials while in office and that even though the statute of limitations had run out in the Jesuits case, the writ of amparo could still be used for that crime.

Given the strength of the Government’s justification for the recommended sentence, the lack of any real response from Montano and the skeptical questioning of Montano by the judge, I have little doubt that the judge will find the grounds for removal substantiated by the evidence and order him removed or deported from the U.S.

Magnitsky Act Developments

On April 12, 2013, the Obama Administration issued a list of 18 Russians who were barred from entering the U.S. and whose assets, if any, in the U.S. were frozen, pursuant to this statute. Most were individuals tied to the death of Mr. Magnitsky, but two had been implicated in notorious murders of a Chechen dissident and an American journalist. There were other more highly placed Russian officials on a nonpublic list.

The reaction to the release of this list was mixed. Russian officials, or course, were critical although a Russian legislator said the Obama Administration was taking a “minimalist path” to avoid a deeper crisis before the visit this week to Russia by the Administration’s National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon. Mr. Megnitsky’s U.S. client and major advocate for the Act when it was in Congress, William F. Browder, said, “We’ve just crossed the threshold. This is the end of impunity.” U.S. Senator John McCain, however, said the list was “so damaging” because it was not robust enough and promised new legislation to go after Russian abusers.

The next day (April 13th) Russia retaliated by issuing a list of 18 U.S. citizens who were barred from entering Russia because of their alleged human rights violations. It included two people involved in preparing the so-called “torture memos” –David Addington, Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, 2005-2009; and John Yoo, Assistant U.S. Attorney General, 2001-2003–and two who had responsibilities for the operations of the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities– Geoffrey D. Miller, retired U.S.Army Major General, Commandant of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, 2002-2003; and Jeffrey Harbeson, U.S. Navy officer, Commandant of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, 2010-2012. The others on the list were U.S. officials involved in the prosecution and trial of a Russian arms dealer and a Russian pilot allegedly involved in drug trafficking.

Russian officials said the U.S. must realize it cannot conduct its relationship with Russia “in the spirit of mentoring and undisguised diktat.” The statement continued, “Our principled opinion on this unfriendly step is well known: under the pressure of Russophobically inclined U.S. congressmen, a severe blow has been dealt to bilateral relations and mutual confidence. The war of lists is not our choice, but we had no right to leave this open blackmail unanswered.”

Conclusion

These three immigration cases show the interactive nature of the enforcement of international human rights norms. Casanova and Garcia were named as involved in some of the worst human rights abuses in El Salvador by the Truth Commission for El Salvador, and its conclusions were then used by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in cases against the State of El Salvador and by U.S. courts in civil lawsuits under the ATS and the TVPA. All of the results of these proceedings were then used in these three U.S. immigration cases.

Another interactive element in these cases is the competent, sustained efforts of the Center for Justice and Accountability in supporting the successful civil lawsuit against Casanova and Garcia under the ATS and TVPA and pressing ICE’s Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center to bring these immigration cases. The Center is a California-based human rights organization “dedicated to deterring torture and other severe human rights abuses around the world and advancing the rights of survivors to seek truth, justice and redress.” It “uses litigation to hold perpetrators individually accountable for human rights abuses, develop human rights law, and advance the rule of law in countries transitioning from periods of abuse.”

The Magnitsky Act, in my opinion, is a different matter. I think it was unnecessary because the previously mentioned INA provisions now being used in the Casanova and Garcia immigration cases could be used to deny U.S. visas to the named Russians. I also think it was and is imprudent because it interferes with U.S. relations with Russia and our national interest in trying to obtain Russian assistance on problems with Syria and North Korea, for example. Professor of Russian Studies at NYU, Stephen Cohen, shares the latter view.

Yes, it is true that some of these means of enforcement are weaker than criminal conviction and imprisonment of the violators. Some only involve recommendations to the state (here, El Salvador) by such organizations as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In this post we are concerned, in part, with orders by a country (here, the U.S.) for a violator to leave the country. But such “weakness” is a necessary consequence of a world essentially structured on the basis of an individual state’s sovereignty. Over time these various mechanisms hopefully will be improved and strengthened.


[1]  Asylum, of course, is another part of immigration law that enforces human rights as covered in other posts. Additional ways of enforcement are discussed in another post.

[2] This provision about removal of foreign human rights violators was added by section 5501 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, 118 Stat. 3638, 3740 (2004). The same language bars such a person from obtaining a visa for legal entry into the U.S. (Id. § 212(a)(3)(E)(ii), (III).)

[3]  The ATS (28 U.S.C.§1350) provides that U.S.”district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the [U.S.].” Many prior posts have discussed this statute and cases thereunder.

[4]   The TVPA (28 U.S.C.§1350 note) provides, “An individual who, under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation . . . subjects an individual to torture [or extrajudicial killing] shall, in a civil action, be liable for damages . . . .” Many prior posts have discussed this statute and cases thereunder.

[5] A Spanish court under the principle of universal jurisdiction has charged Montano and other Salvadoran military officers with complicity in the murders of the Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and daughter. The Spanish government has asked the U.S. to extradite Montano and another former officer now living in the U.S. to Spain to stand trial on such charges, but the U.S. apparently has not yet acted upon the request. A similar request to El Salvador for extradition of other former officers has been rejected. A summary of these and other developments in the Jesuits case is available on this blog.

[6] The complete title of the statute is the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012. Sections 404 (a) and 405(a) of the Act make ineligible for U.S. visas individuals identified on a subsequent U.S. presidential list of those “responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of . . . Magnitsky, participated in efforts to conceal the legal liability for the detention, abuse, or death of . . .  Magnitsky, financially benefitted from the detention, abuse, or death of . . .  Magnitsky, or was involved in the criminal conspiracy uncovered by  . . . Magnitsky.” That presidential  list is also to include a list of individuals “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals seeking–(A) to expose illegal activity carried out by officials of the Government of the Russian Federation; or(B) to obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms, such as the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly, and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections, in Russia.”

[7]  A previous post discussed this February 2012 decision. The complete (but redacted) text of the February and August 2012 decisions was only made publicly available in April 2013. A summary of this immigration case is available on the web.

[8] A summary of this immigration case is available on the web.  Previously (January 2009), Garcia had been indicted for visa fraud and making false statements to U.S. immigration officials, but in September 2009 the indictment was dismissed when a government witness recanted her testimony.

Report for dwkcommentaries —2012

This blog, which started on April 4, 2011, reports the following activity through December 31, 2012:

2011 2012 Total
Posts    190      179      369
Comments      26      170      196
Views 9,190 51,161 60,351

The busiest day so far was December 13, 2012, with 361 views. For 2012 as a whole the viewers came from 170 countries with most from the U.S.A. followed by the United Kingdom and Canada. This blog has 304 followers (Facebook, 235; direct, 59; and commentators, 10).

The following were the most popular posts in 2012:

As indicated in detail on Page: List of Posts and Comments to dwkcommentaries–Topical, the posts and comments for 2011-2012 fell into the following categories:

  • Personal
  • Higher Education
  • Religion/Christianity
  • Lawyering (practice of law)
  • U.S. History
  • U.S. Politics
  • El Salvador
  • Cuba
  • Human Rights Treaties & U.N. Human Rights Council
  • Refugee and Asylum Law
  • Alien Tort Statute & Torture Victims Protection Act
  • International Criminal Justice
  • International Criminal Court
  • Miscellaneous

The blogger would appreciate receiving substantive comments on his posts, including corrections and disagreements.

Effective January 1, 2013, this blog has its own domain: “dwkcommentaries.com.”

The El Mozote Masacre: Inter-American Court of Human Rights Determines El Salvador Violated American Convention on Human Rights

El Mozote
El Mozote

On December 11, 1981, the Salvadoran military detained and systematically executed virtually all of the 200 men, women and children in the small village of El Mozote in the northern part of the country. Others in nearby villages also were executed in the military’s “scorched earth” offensive.[1]

Now we look at this case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the Court).

 Invoking the Court’s Jurisdiction

As previously reported, the Commission on November 3, 2010, decided that the State of El Salvador had violated the American Convention on Human Rights in various respects regarding the Massacre and recommended various actions be taken by the State to redress the crimes. The State was given two months from December 8, 2010, to do so.

As of March 8, 2001, however, the State had not responded to the Commission regarding its implementation of the recommendations. Therefore, on that date, the Commission submitted the case to the Court for enforcement of those recommendations.

At the Court’s April 23, 2012, hearing in the matter, an attorney for the State said it would comply with whatever the Court decided.

The Court’s Judgment

Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Inter-American Court of Human Rights

On October 25, 2012, the Court rendered its judgment concluding that El Salvador had violated the American Convention on Human Rights with respect to the Massacre, and on December 10, 2012 (International Human Rights Day and the day before the 31st anniversary of the Massacre), the Court publicly released the judgment.[2]

Preliminarily the Court commended El Salvador for accepting all of the factual assertions of the petitioner and victims’ representative and for Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes’ January 16, 2012, apology for the Massacre and commitment to provide remedies for victims and their relatives.[3]

The Court essentially endorsed or affirmed the Commission’s conclusions that the Salvadoran State had violated the following provisions of the American Convention of Human Rights regarding the Massacre:

  • (a) the rights to life, humane treatment and personal liberty of the victims who were executed extrajudically;
  • (b) the special rights of children who were executed extrajudically;
  • (c ) the rights to humane treatment and privacy of the women who were raped;
  • (d) the right to property of the murdered victims and the survivors whose homes were destroyed and whose means of livelihood were stolen or eliminated;
  • (e) the right to humane treatment of the survivors and relatives of the murdered victims;
  • (f) the right of freedom of movements and residence of those who were forcibly displaced; and
  • (g) the rights to a fair trial and judicial protection of the survivors and relatives of the murdered victims.

The court devoted considerable attention to the Salvadoran Law of General Amnesty after noting that unlike its earlier cases invalidating amnesty laws, this Law refers to acts committed in the context of an internal armed conflict and, therefore, implicates the competing considerations of Article 6(5) of Protocol II to the Geneva Convention Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts. That article provides:

  •  ”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.”

According to the Court, this provision of the Additional Protocol is not absolute as there is an obligation under international law for a state to investigate and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Therefore, the Court concluded, the General Amnesty Law is contrary to the letter and spirit of the Peace Accords ending the Salvadoran civil war, to international law and to the American Convention on Human Rights. Accordingly that Law is without legal effect in this case and may not continue to obstruct the investigation of the facts and the identification, prosecution and punishment of those responsible for these crimes.[4]

The Court, therefore, ordered the State of El Salvador to:

  • (i) continue with the full commissioning of the “Register of Victims and Relatives of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations during the Slaughter of El Mozote “and take the necessary measures to ensure its permanence in time and budget allocation to operate effectively;
  • (ii) initiate, promote, reopen, direct, and continuing conclude, as appropriate, with the utmost diligence, investigations of all the facts of the violations declared in this judgment, in order to identify, prosecute and, if necessary, punish those responsible;
  • (iii) ensure that the General Amnesty Law . . . [is] not an obstacle to the investigation of the facts of this case or the identification, prosecution and punishment of those responsible for them and other serious human rights violations similar that occurred during the armed conflict in El Salvador;
  • (iv) investigate . . . the conduct of the officials who obstructed the investigation and allowed [offenders] to remain in impunity and, after due process, apply . . . administrative sanctions, disciplinary or criminal sanctions to those found responsible;
  • (v) carry out a survey of the available information on possible burial or burial sites . . . which should be protected for preservation, . . .[in order to] initiate a systematic and rigorous, with adequate human and financial resources,. . .  exhumation, identification and, if necessary, return of the remains of those executed to their families;
  • (vi) implement a development program for [the affected] communities] communities . . . .;
  • (vii) ensuring appropriate conditions so that the displaced victims can return to their home communities . . .permanent[ly], if they choose, and implement a housing program in the areas affected by the massacres of this case;
  • (viii) implement a comprehensive care and treatment of physical, mental and psychosocial [injuries];
  • (ix) publish the judgment;
  • (x) [produce and] perform an audiovisual documentary about the serious crimes committed in the massacre of El Mozote and surrounding areas;
  • (xi) implement a permanent program or compulsory course on human rights, including gender and childhood [rights], . . . [for] all ranks of the Armed Forces of the Republic of El Salvador; and
  • (xii) pay the compensation by way of compensation for material and moral damages, and reimbursement of costs and expenses.

The Court concluded with a statement that it would monitor full compliance with the judgment and terminate the case only after there has been such compliance.

Reaction to the Court’s Judgment

Immediately after the public release of the judgment, the Salvadoran government issued a public statement that it respects the judgment and assumes responsibility for complying therewith. The government specifically recognized that the victims and their families are entitled to moral and economic reparations which would be met within the government’s resources and powers. As the Court’s judgment acknowledged, the Salvadoran government since at least December 2011 had started the process of moral and economic reparations for these crimes.

Another problem of Salvadoran law that was not present in the Salvadoran criminal case about El Mozote and, therefore, was not addressed by the Inter-American Court in this case is a relatively short statute of limitations (10 years) for such crimes that were committed in 1981. Although, in my opinion, such limitations are subject to the same legal analysis and conclusion of invalidity as the Court’s treatment of the General Amnesty Law, difficulties in complying with the Court’s order will probably be presented by these short statutes of limitation with respect to any attempted criminal prosecutions.

Indeed, Salvadoran courts already have used the 10-year statute of limitations to bar criminal cases regarding the 1980 rapes and murders of the four American churchwomen and the 1989 murders of the six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter.

Moreover, one of the reasons for statutes of limitation for civil and criminal cases around the world is to protect the right to fair trial for both parties, but especially defendants. The longer that time passes between the events in dispute and the investigation and trial, the greater the risk of loss of evidence through death or incapacity of parties and witnesses and loss or destruction of documents and other physical evidence plus general loss of memory of the events. Here, 31 years already have passed since the Massacre.

Perhaps a Salvadoran criminal court could adopt in such circumstances the U.S. legal doctrine of “laches.” In U.S. law, it is an equitable defense in civil cases, not criminal cases, when the defendant alleges that as a result of delay in the plaintiff’s asserting the claim, circumstances have so changed that make it unjust for the plaintiff’s claim to be granted. One example of such changed circumstances is relevant testimony or other evidence is no longer available to defend against the claim. Laches is similar to a statute of limitations defense, but laches may be invoked before the statute of limitations has expired.

We will have to see how this and other issues develop initially in El Salvador and then in the Inter-American Court.


[1] A prior post set forth a brief summary of the facts of the Massacre, the investigation of same by the Truth Commission for El Salvador and the subsequent adoption of the Salvadoran General Amnesty Law and the dismissal of a criminal case on the basis of that Law. Another post  reviewed the El Mozote case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

[2]  Available online are the judgment itself, an official summary of the judgment and the Court’s press release about the judgment.

[3] An earlier post discussed the Salvadoran government’s December 2011 public apology for the Massacre and its January 2012 commitment to commence moral and economic reparations.

[4] The President of the Court, Judge Diego Garcia Sayan (Peru), submitted a concurring opinion with a more extensive analysis of the issue of the validity of the General Law of Amnesty. He emphasized the difficult choices facing a country that seeks to end an internal armed conflict. Another concurring opinion was submitted by Judge Eduardo Vio Grossi (Chile), who urged the Court in another case to focus on whether a fetus should be considered a “person” or “human being” under the American Convention on Human Rights.