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.

Former Salvadoran Military Officer Is Determined to Have Assisted in Torture and Murder

Vides Casanova

This week a U.S. immigration judge in Orlando, Florida after trial found that former Salvadoran General and Minister of Defense Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova had assisted in acts of torture and murder committed by soldiers under his command. Now he is subject to further proceedings potentially leading to his deportation from the U.S. where he has lived for many years as a legal resident.

One of the cases which Vides Casanova was determined to have assisted was the December 1980 rape, torture and murder of four American churchwomen by five Salvadoran National Guardsmen. At the time Vides Casanova was the Commander of the Guard. (We already have examined the mission work of the churchwomen, the early investigations of this horrendous crime, the Salvadoran criminal prosecution of the Guardsmen and the Salvadoran Truth Commission’s investigation of the crime.)

The immigration judge also concluded that Vides Casanova had assisted in the torture of two Salvadorans, Juan Romagoza and Daniel Alvarado, who testified against him in hearings last spring in the immigration court in Orlando.

In 2005 Vides Casanova and his fellow former Salvadoran General and Minister of Defense Jose Guillermo Garcia were held liable in U.S. federal court for $54.6 million under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA). This civil case was brought by Romagoza and Alvarado and another Salvadoran refugee for their torture by Salvadoran military personnel during the period 1979 to 1983.

Earlier Vides Casanova and Garcia had defeated similar civil claims in U.S. federal court over the torture, rapes and murders of the four American churchwomen.

Earlier posts have reviewed the enactment of the TVPA and the history of the Alien Tort Statute for the periods 1789-1979, 1980, 1980-2004, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2004 and 2004-present.

The current deportation case was brought by the Human Rights Violators & War Crimes Center, which is a unit of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement created in 2003 to focus on preventing rights violators from entering this country and deporting those already here.