Other Legal Proceedings Regarding the Murders of the Jesuit Priests of El Salvador and Their Housekeeper and Her Daughter

As we have seen in a recent post, the Spanish criminal investigation and prosecution of former Salvadoran military officers and soldiers for the murders of the Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter are still pending and hopefully the case will go to trial in 2015 against at least one of the 19 Salvadoran military officers and soldiers charged with the crime.

There, however, have been other legal proceedings regarding this horrible crime. Here is a summary of these proceedings.

 Other Proceedings

 Salvadoran Investigations. Immediately after the murders, the Salvadoran military took steps to destroy evidence and to cover up their involvement in the crime while supposedly conducting an independent investigation of the crime. With widespread international outrage at the crime, the Minister of Defense was forced to establish a Special Honor Commission, consisting of five officers and two civilians to do a more thorough investigation. It concluded that nine people were responsible for the murders: four lower-ranking officers and five soldiers. International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Military’s Attempted Cover-Up of Its Committing the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 7, 2011), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2011/06/07/international-criminal-justice-salvadoran-militarys-attempted-cover-up-of-its-committing-the-murders-of-the-jesuit-priests/.

Salvadoran Criminal Charges. The murders of the Jesuit priests caused such a huge international uproar that El Salvador had to do something to make it appear as if it were pursuing justice in the case. As a result, in January 1990 the Salvadoran government commenced a criminal prosecution of five Salvadoran military officers and five soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion. The highest-ranking officer was Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, the Director of the Military College, who was accused of having given the order to murder the priests. (International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Criminal Case Regarding the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 8, 2011).)

Salvadoran Criminal Trial. After lengthy pre-trial proceedings, this criminal trial finally took place in September 1991. Benevides was convicted of all eight counts of murder and instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. One of the Lieutenants was convicted of one count of murder (the 16-year-old girl), instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism and being an accessory. Benevides and this Lieutenant were sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. The other two Lieutenants were convicted of instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism; they were sentenced to three years imprisonment, but released on bail and continued to serve in the military. A Lieutenant Colonel was convicted of being an accessory and sentenced to three years imprisonment, but he too was released on bail and continued to serve in the military. The five soldiers were acquitted of all charges. (Id.)

Salvadoran Truth Commission Investigation and Report. The Peace Accords of January 1992 that ended the Salvadoran Civil War established the Truth Commission for El Salvador to investigate the most serious crimes that had occurred during the war, including the murders of the Jesuits. Its March 1993 final report found the following facts regarding the murders:

  • On the night of 15 November 1989, then Colonel René Emilio Ponce, in the presence of ad in collusion with General Juan Rafael Bustillo, then Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano and Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes, gave Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides the order to kill Father Ignacio Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses. For that purpose, Colonel Benavides was given the use of a unit from the Atlacatl Battalion, which had been sent to search the priests’ residence two days previously.
  • That same night, Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides informed the officers at the Military College of the order for the murder. When he asked whether anyone had any objection, they all remained silent.
  • The operation was organized by then Major Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona and carried out by a group of soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion under the command of Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra and Second Lieutenant Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, accompanied by Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos.
  • Subsequently, all these officers and others, including General Gilberto Rubio Rubio, knowing what had happened, took steps to conceal the truth, including destruction of evidence.

(International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in The Truth Commission for El Salvador (June 9, 2011).)

Adoption of Salvadoran Amnesty Law. Five days after the delivery of the Truth Commission Report in March 1993, El Salvador’s National Assembly adopted the General Amnesty Law for the Consolidation of the Peace (Decree 486). Its provisions included “a full, absolute and unconditional amnesty to all those who participated in any way in the commission, prior to January 1, 1992 [the end of the civil war], of political crimes or common crimes linked to political crimes or common crimes in which the number of persons involved is no less than twenty.” (International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case (June 11, 2011).)

Implementation of Amnesty Law. Immediately after the adoption of the Amnesty Law and pursuant to this Law, Colonel Benavides and the Lieutenant who had been convicted and imprisoned in the Jesuits case were released from prison. (Id.)

Instigation of Case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Meanwhile, on the same day the Jesuit priests were murdered (November 16, 1989), Americas Watch, a non-governmental human rights organization, filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging that the Salvadoran government had violated the American Convention [Treaty] on Human Rights with respect to the murder of the Jesuits and their cook and her daughter.  (International Criminal Justice: The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Case Regarding the Jesuit Priests (June 13, 2011).)

Investigation and Report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Ten years later (December 22, 1999), the Inter-American Commission issued its report. Relying heavily on the findings of the Truth Commission, the report made detailed findings about the murder and subsequent events and concluded that the state had violated the American Convention. As a result, the Commission recommended that the government conduct an expeditious, effective investigation and prosecute and punish those who were involved “without reference to the amnesty,” to make reparations and to render the General Amnesty Law null and void. (The Commission did not, and does not, have the power to order any of the states to do anything. (Id.)[1]


 Now twenty-five years after the crimes and 15 years after the Inter-American Commission’s report, no one has been convicted of the crime and imprisoned other than the two officers who were convicted by a Salvadoran court and who briefly were in prison before being released under the Amnesty Law.

Moreover, the government of El Salvador has not fully complied with the Commission’s recommendations.

In November 2009, however, El Salvador presented the nation’s highest award (National Order of Jose Matias Delgado) to the Jesuit priests’ relatives as an act of atonement and formally advised the Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that the Salvadoran state accepted the binding nature of their past decisions involving the country and the state’s responsibility to implement their recommendations in those cases.

In addition, in January 2010, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes admitted that during the civil war state security forces “committed serious human rights violations and abuses of power,” including “massacres, arbitrary executions, forced disappearances, torture, sexual abuse, arbitrary deprivation of freedom” and other acts of repression. Funes then made a formal apology to all of the victims of these crimes and asked for their forgiveness and created a commission to offer redress to the victims. (Id.)


[1] There has been much debate in El Salvador about whether or not the Amnesty Law is valid and/or should be abolished. The country’s Supreme Court is expected in the next several months to decide whether the Law is constitutional.   Meanwhile, U.S. courts have determined that the Salvadoran Amnesty Law is not applicable to litigation in U.S. courts.

Failed Efforts To Weaken the Inter-American Human Rights System Under the Guise of Reform

A prior post discussed the March 22, 2013, resolution by the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) that strengthened the Inter-American Human Rights System, especially the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”).

In so doing, the OAS rejected efforts to weaken the Commission under the guise of reform proposals that had been offered by Ecuador and other states that the Commission has criticized (Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua).

We now examine the background to that surreptitious effort to weaken that System and the debate at the March 22nd General Assembly meeting


1. Multilateral Treaties and Other Instruments Regarding the Right of Free Expression.

The right of free expression by the media and others is well established in international law.

The United Nation’s General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 in Article 19 states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” In 1966 this was put into legally enforceable form in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which entered into force in 1976.

To like effect is the American Convention on Human Rights, which was adopted by the OAS in 1969 and which entered into force in 1978. Its Article 13(1) says, “Everyone has  the right to freedom of thought and expression . . . [including the] freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or through any other medium of one’s choice.” Article 13(3) goes on to say, “The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting frequencies, or equipment used in the dissemination of information, or by any other means tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions.”

Elaborating on this right is the Inter-American Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression of 2000.

2. Ecuador’s Hostility to Freedom of Expression.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa

Ecuador under the presidency of Rafael Correa since January 2007 has through policies and actions retaliated against journalists and media that have criticized him and his government. Correa has insulted and filed lawsuits against reporters and news outlets and promoted a series of legal measures to roll back press freedoms. His government has expropriated television channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines.

Journalists in the country also have been subjected to physical threats and assaults with lackluster efforts by the government to investigate and prosecute those responsible.

3. The Commission and Civil Society’s Criticism of Ecuador’s Hostility to Freedom of Expression.

The Commission in 1997 created the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression “to encourage the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given the fundamental role this right plays in consolidating and developing the democratic system and in protecting, guaranteeing, and promoting other human rights.”

This Rapporteur has been in the forefront of criticizing Ecuador for these actions against journalists and the media. Since January 1, 2009 it has issued nine press releases expressing its concern over specific criminal prosecutions and imprisonments of journalists for libel for publication of articles about corruption of public officials and for specific physical threats and assaults on journalists.

In addition, since 2006 the annual reports of the Rapporteur have had sections specifically addressing Ecuador’s conduct in this area.

For example, the latest such report (for 2011) devotes 31 pages (78-108) for a detailed, footnoted review of Ecuador’s assaults and attacks on media and journalists; legal proceedings and arrests (the “Rapporteur is concerned about the consistent tendency of high-ranking public officials to rebuke, arrest, and prosecute citizens who criticize them at public events”); presidential broadcasts and government interruptions of news programs; disparaging statements by senior state authorities against media outlets and reporters critical of the government; constitutional amendment and legislative proposals to regulate the content of all media, establish the grounds for liability and the applicable sanctions and serve as an authority on enforcement; and cloture and regulation of communications media.

Such actions also have subjected the country to similar criticism by the U.N. Human Rights Council in its Universal Periodic Review of Ecuador in the summer of 2012. One of the Council’s closing recommendations in that Review was for Ecuador to reform its legislation regarding freedom of expression with a view to bringing it in conformity with international standards and those of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In response Ecuador said that it could not agree to reform its legal framework in accordance with standards from the Commission, when it is the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, not the Commission, which has judicial competency over this matter. Nor could Ecuador, it said, eliminate laws that criminalize opinion since it had no such laws.

In addition, Ecuador has been severely chastised by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which put the country on its Risk List of the 10 countries in the world where press freedom suffered the most in 2012. Similar rebukes have come from Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and the Washington Post Editorial Board.

4. Ecuador’s Campaign for Its Proposed “Reforms” of the Commission.

In response to the Special Rapporteur’s persistent and documented criticism of Ecuador, the country developed a set of proposals to “reform” the Commission. Prominent in this package were reduction in funding (and hence the work) of the Special Rapporteur and elimination of his separate annual report.

Ricardo Patino
Ricardo Patino

In early 2013 Ecuador conducted a lobbying campaign in support of these proposals. Its Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino, went on a tour of Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Venezuela to promote them.  He also advocated them at a meeting of the Political Council of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) [1] and at a March 11th meeting in Guayaquil, Ecuador of the 24 states that were parties to the American Convention on Human Rights.[2]

The latter event was opened by a long speech by Ecuadorian President Correa, who emphasized that the Commission should have its headquarters in a state that has ratified said Convention (not Washington, D.C.); that the Commission should have its own budget provided only by state parties to the Convention (without voluntary contributions by outsiders like the U.S., Canadian and European governments and NGO’s);  that the Commission should not be “autonomous” and instead be controlled by said states parties; the abolition of the Commission’s rules authorizing its issuance of precautionary measures; having the Commission focus on general promotion of human rights, not investigating and deciding on alleged violations of human rights; and elimination of the separate annual report of the Special Rapporteur for Free Expression and instead including such a report in a comprehensive report for all of the rapporteurships.

The Ecuador meeting resulted in the Declaration of Guayaquil whereby the 24 states parties agreed that at the March 22nd meeting of the OAS General Assembly they would support the following: a group of their foreign ministers would press the U.S., Canada and other non-parties to the Convention to ratify or accede to same; the Commission would be refocused on promotion of human rights through national systems; financing of the Commission would be increased by states parties and by “neutral” others; all rapporteurships would be treated equally; an analysis of the costs of the OAS Human Rights System would be obtained; the Commission’s headquarters would be moved to a state party; and annual conferences about reforming the System would be held.

Opposition to such proposals came forward from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who urged the OAS members “to strengthen its exemplary human rights system, by promoting universal access for citizens . . ., respecting the Commission’s autonomy to progressively improve its policy and practices in response to the needs of victims and concerns of member states, and providing the necessary resources [to the System].” Similar concerns were voiced by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, a group of 98 prominent Latin Americans and a coalition of 700 hemispheric human rights organizations.

Another opponent of Ecuador’s campaign was Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, a former president of Colombia and past secretary general of the OAS. He said that the so called “reforms” of the Commission put forward by Ecuador would “severely weaken the [C]omission and make it easier for governments to ignore basic rights and limit free speech.” They would “drastically curtail [the Commission’s] autonomy” and put a “financial stranglehold” on its operations, including a “devastating impact” on the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. [3]

The March 22nd OAS General Assembly Meeting

Jose Miguel Insulza, OAS Secretary General
Jose Miguel Insulza, OAS Secretary General

In opening remarks that day, the OAS Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza from Chile, stressed that the autonomy of the System needed to be maintained. He also said that strengthening some of the Commission’s rapporteurships “cannot mean that others are weakened” and that the Special Rapporteurship on Freedom of Expression should be strengthened “with a program of ample defense of [such] freedom . . . . ” This would include “issues relating to the curtailment of that freedom by public authorities . . .  as well as the threats and crimes to which journalists and the social media are increasingly subjected in our region and the obligation of states to protect them.”

William J. Burns, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
William J. Burns, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State

Similar remarks were made by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, William J. Burns. He noted that even though the U.S. was not a party to the American Convention on Human Rights, the U.S. still collaborates with the Commission when it challenges the U.S. on such issues as the death penalty, the human rights of migrants and children and the status of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He added, “We must be vigilant against efforts to weaken the Commission under the guise of reform. [Such efforts] . . . seek to undermine the Commission’s ability to hold governments accountable when they erode democratic checks and balances and concentrate power through illiberal manipulation of democratic processes.”

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Patino in his remarks accused the opposition and the media of distorting his government’s proposals. He also accused the Commission of improperly assuming the power to issue precautionary measures. Its decisions were independent, he said, but the Commission was not autonomous. He rhetorically asked, the Commission is autonomous and independent of whom? Sotto voce, a Spanish journalist answered, “You,” causing laughter by those around the journalist.

The resolution adopted by acclamation at the midnight conclusion of the March 22nd meeting already has been discussed. It clearly did not adopt all of the items in Ecuador’s package.

This resolution emerged after a long day in which the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Chile lead the opposition to the proposals from Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. A Human Rights Watch observer said, “It was a resounding victory for the Commission, and a major defeat for the Venezuela-Ecuador bloc. It became evident that [the latter] . . . were totally isolated, without the support they were expecting from other countries.”

Towards the end of the meeting Ecuador and Bolivia threatened to withdraw from the Commission and leave the meeting. To avoid such a rupture, Argentina offered a face-saving amendment to the resolution about the OAS’ Permanent Council continuing the dialogue on the “core aspects for strengthening” the System, which Ecuador and the other ALBA countries ultimately accepted.


Afterwards Ecuador’s Foreign Minister tried to whitewash his country’s defeat by saying that the resolution accepted its proposal to continue the debate in the future. Before the next meeting of the OAS General Assembly in June 2014, the Foreign Minister said that there would be another meeting of the states parties to the American Convention like the one on March 11th in Guayaquil to discuss these issues. He also hinted at Ecuador’s possible withdrawal from the OAS Commission by saying there was an agreement being negotiated to create a Human Rights Commission of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

Unless there are unexpected changes in regimes or policies in this Hemisphere over the next 14 months, I do not expect Ecuador and its allies will be successful at the June 2014 OAS meeting in gaining acceptance of its proposals to weaken the Inter-American Commission.[4] We will then see if this small group will leave that Commission and form its own, more limited, human rights system.

[1] ALBA is an alternative to the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas. differing from the latter in that it advocates a socially-oriented trade block rather than one strictly based on the logic of deregulated profit maximization. The only members of ALBA are Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and three small Caribbean states (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

[2]  This campaign is discussed in press releases from Ecuador’s Foreign Minister.

[3] Such a limitation on financing undoubtedly would result in a reduction of such funding and thus on the work of the Commission.

[4]  I assume that Ecuador has another burden to overcome in attempting to win support for its “reform” proposals. Its credibility within the OAS, I suspect, has been adversely affected by its recent exaggerated, alarmist call for an OAS Consultative Meeting of Foreign Ministers over the alleged United Kingdom threat to invade Ecuador’s London Embassy because of its providing diplomatic asylum in that Embassy to Julian Assange.

Mexican Court Invalidates Former Mexican President’s Claim of Immunity from Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victims Protection Act Case in U.S.

As a prior post reports, in September 2011, a group of Mexican nationals sued former Mexican President, Ernesto Zedillo, in federal court in Connecticut for his alleged complicity in a 1997 massacre in the Mexican village of Acteal. The complaint seeks $10 million in damages under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act.

The U.S. Government on September 7, 2012, suggested that Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo should be immune from this lawsuit and that the case should be dismissed. This was based upon a request for such immunity from the Mexican government.

Eighteen days later (September 25th), the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut issued an Order To Show Cause requiring the plaintiffs by October 9th (later extended to October 16th) to show cause why the case should not be dismissed on the basis of former head-of state immunity. Simultaneously the court denied Zedillo’s dismissal motion as moot.

On October 16th the plaintiffs filed their Response to Order To Show Cause, Objection to the United States’ Suggestion of Immunity, and Motion To Stay Proceedings. It asserted, with supporting documents, the following:

• that on October 3rd they filed a petition for a writ of amparo in a Mexican federal court asking for a declaration that the Mexican Government’s request for immunity for Zedillo in this case violated Mexican law and the Mexican constitution and, therefore, is a nullity;

• that on October 9th the Mexican court “accepted” the petition, i.e., determined it was not dismissable; and

• that on October 9th the Mexican court also entered another order temporarily suspending the validity of the Mexican Government’s request for immunity for Zedillo in the U.S. case and enjoining any acts in furtherance of that request pending resolution of the Mexican case.

With this showing, the plaintiffs asked the U.S. court (a) to stay proceedings in this case pending the outcome of the Mexican case; or (b) to dismiss the U.S. case without prejudice while tolling the statute of limitations with leave to re-file the U.S. case if they succeed in the Mexican case; and (c) to request the U.S. Department of State to reconsider its position on immunity after the Mexican case is resolved; and (d) to provide guidance as to plaintiffs’ right to amend their complaint or to petition for leave to do so.

As of March 10, 2013, the U.S. case had been reassigned to another District Judge, and the dispute over the claimed immunity had not been resolved by the U.S. court.

On the afternoon of March 10th while walking in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I saw the page 1 headline in an issue of LaJournada, a Mexican newspaper: “Inconstitucional, pedir inmunidad para Zedillo en EU.”  Even my limited Spanish language abilities told me that a Mexican court had decided that the Mexican government’s request for immunity for Zedillo in this U.S. case violated the Mexican constitution.

According to a Google English translation of the article on the Internet, a Mexican judge had determined that Mexican authorities had violated the Mexican Constitution and international human rights treaties by asking the U.S. government to grant immunity to former President Zedillo.

One of the treaties was the Havana Convention, which states that “no immunities must be claimed that are not essential to the performance of official duties,” and it was violated, the court said, because Zedillo does not currently occupy any public position in the Mexican government. The American Convention on Human Rights was also violated, according to the Mexican court, because immunity for Zedillo causes “undue discrimination and threatening the human right of equality” for those who allegedly were harmed.

I imagine that there will be appeals or further proceedings in the Mexican case. In the meantime, I predict that the U.s. court will do nothing until the Mexican case is finally resolved.

The El Mozote Massacre: The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

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.[1]


Now we look at a case regarding this Massacre before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR or Commission).[2]

The Petition to the Commission

In October 1990 (nearly nine years after the Massacre) the Oficina de Tutela Legal of the San Salvador Archbishop’s Office filed a petition with the IACHR alleging various human rights violations by the State of El Salvador in connection with the massacres in El Mazote and five other nearby villages.

The Salvadoran government did not seriously challenge the allegations as to what happened in the villages. Instead, it asserted that (a) the case was not admissible to the IACHR because the petitioners had not exhausted their remedies in the country; (b) there was a criminal investigation precipitated by a complaint that was not made until 1990; (c ) the investigation proceeded properly despite great external difficulties caused by the war; (d) the case properly was dismissed in accordance with the General Amnesty Law; and (e) and the petitioners had failed to appeal that dismissal.

IACHR’s Determination of Admissibility of the Petition

 In March 2006 (16 years after the filing of the petition and 25 years after the Massacre), the IACHR determined that the petition was admissible, i.e., eligible for further proceedings. The parties (petitioners and the government) were proper parties under the American Convention on Human Rights. The petition alleged violations of the Convention occurring within the territory of a party to the Convention after it had become such a party.

 Most importantly for admissibility, the exception to the requirement for exhaustion of domestic remedies was satisfied: the systematic violations of human rights in the country made it impossible to file a complaint prior to 1990, appeals of dismissals based on the General Amnesty Law were not necessary, and the state had the responsibility to initiate criminal proceedings based on the Supreme Court’s recognition or creation in 2000 of possible exceptions to that Law and had not exercised that option. In reaching these conclusions, the IACHR relied, in part, on the report of the Truth Commission for El Salvador.

IACHR’s Determination of State Violations

 On November 3, 2010 (20 years after the filing of the Petition and 29 years after the Massacre),  the Commission issued its 79-page merits decision that the “massacres at El Mozote and neighboring locales constituted an unconscionable breach of the most fundamental principles of the American Convention [on Human Rights]. The shocking number of men, women, children and older people who dies at the hands of the Atlacatl Battalion must remain etched in the memory of Salvadoran society so that events such as [these] . . . will never be repeated. The State of El Salvador has an urgent duty to pay its historic debt to the memory of the victims, their surviving relatives, and the people of the country . . . .” (¶ 339)

 More specifically, the IACHR concluded (¶ 340) that the State of El Salvador had violated:

  • (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 Commission directly addressed the Salvadoran General Amnesty Law. That Law “and its application [for dismissal of the El Mozote criminal case] . . . are incompatible with the international obligations of the State of El Salvador under the American Convention [on Human Rights] . . . . [The] amnesty law can have no legal effect and cannot continue to be an obstacle to the investigation of the massacres in El Mozote and neighboring locales, nor to the identification and punishment of those responsible.” (¶ 330). This conclusion was supported by citations to numerous decisions to that effect by the Commission itself and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and to resolutions by the U.N. General Assembly (¶¶ 314-329).

As  a result, the Commission recommended that within two months the State of El Salvador : (¶¶ 341-342):

  1. “Make adequate reparations for [these] violations of human rights . . . , both in their material and their moral aspect, including the establishment and dissemination of the historic truth of the events, suitable commemoration of the victims who died, and implementation of an appropriate program of psychosocial care for the surviving relatives.”
  2. “Establish a mechanism to ensure that the victims killed in the massacres at El Mozote and neighboring vicinities are identified as fully as possible and take the necessary steps to pursue the exhumation, identification and return of the remains of those victims in accordance with the desires of their families. This mechanism must also facilitate the complete identification of the relatives of the murdered victims, so that they can be eligible for the reparations . . . .”
  3. “Render ineffective the General Amnesty Law . . .  as it prevents the investigation, trial and sanction of those responsible for human rights violations and the rights of victims to truth, justice, and reparation. Also, any other de jure or de facto obstacles, such as judicial or investigative practices, must be eliminated.”
  4. ” {T]he State should proceed immediately to investigate in an impartial, effective manner and within a reasonable time with the purpose to establishing the facts in a completely, identify the intellectual and material authors and impose the sanctions that correspond. In the immediate fulfillment of this obligation, the Salvadoran authorities cannot invoke the validity of the General Amnesty Law  . . . .”
  5. “Annul the General Amnesty Law . . .  and ensure that no similar legal mechanisms are activated to obstruct the clarification and punishment of crimes against humanity such as those that occurred in this case.”
  6. “Take the measures necessary to prevent similar events in the future, in observance of the duty to respect and guarantee human rights recognized in the American Convention [of Human Rights].In particular, implement permanent programs on human rights and international humanitarian law in the armed forces training schools.”

[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.

[2]  Background about the IACHR is set forth in a prior post.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Issues Important Decision on Judicial Independence

Ecuadorian plate

On July 22, 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued an important decision regarding judicial independence when it concluded that Ecuador had violated the American Convention on Human Rights over its 2004 dismissal of eight of the 18 judges of its Constitutional Court. A little over three months later, in November 2011, the Commission referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The key fact for this case was the Ecuadorian National Congress’ November 25, 2004, termination of all the 18 principal and alternate members of Ecuador’s Constitutional Court, eight of whom filed a complaint with the IACHR.  This key fact occurred in the following context:

  • In January 2003 during the presidency of Gustavo Noboa three of the petitioning former judges were designated by the Congress as Judges of the Constitutional Court for four-year terms.
  • In March 2003 during the presidency of Lucio Gutierrez the other five of the petitioning former judges were designated by the Congress as Judges of the Constitutional Court for four-year terms.
  • On March 24, 2003, all of the 18 Judges of the Court took office.
  • Apparently sometime between March 24 and June 13, 2003, the Court in Case No. 004-2003-TC (“Case # 4”) decided that a labor statute was unconstitutional.
  • On June 13, 2003, a resolution was introduced in the Congress to censure five of the judges for their votes in Case # 4. Another version of this resolution was introduced three days later.
  • Apparently sometime between March 24, 2003, and May 31, 2004, the Court in Case No. 025-2003-TC (“Case # 25”) decided that certain provisions of Ecuador’s Electoral Law were unconstitutional.
  • On May 31 and July 7, 2004, two similar resolutions were introduced in the Congress to censure six of the Judges for their votes in Case # 25.
  • On November 9, 2004, an application for the impeachment of President Gutierrez was thwarted, but the details of this are not spelled out in the IACHR’s decision.
  • On November 24, 2004, President Gutierrez announced the Government’s intent to ask Congress to reorganize the Court in order to “depoliticize” it. In response the Court published an announcement in the national press that removing the sitting judges by a mere congressional resolution would be illegal and that impeachment was the only proper method for such removal.
  • On November 25, 2004, the Congress passed a resolution declaring that all the judges of the Constitutional Court had been illegally designated in 2003 and, therefore, terminating them. On the same day, the Congress designated new members of the Court.
  • On December 1, 2004, the Congress held an impeachment proceeding for five of the petitioners and one other Judge. In that proceeding the Congress debated the previously mentioned four proposed resolutions censuring the judges, but did not adopt any of these resolutions. Nor did the Congress overturn its November 25th resolution terminating the judges.

In February 2005 eight of the former Judges filed a complaint with the IACHR alleging that their removal violated the American Convention on Human Rights. Two years later, in February 2007, the Commission decided that most, but not all, of the complaint was admissible, i.e., was entitled to be treated on the merits.

Another four-plus years passed, and on July 22, 2011, the Commission issued its decision on the merits. It concluded that the State of Ecuador had violated the rights to a fair trial, to freedom from ex post facto laws and to judicial protection enshrined in the following articles of the American Convention:

  • “Article 8. Right to a Fair Trial.  1. Every person has the right to a hearing, with due guarantees and within a reasonable time, by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal, previously established by law, in the substantiation of any accusation of a criminal nature made against him or for the determination of his rights and obligations of a civil, labor, fiscal, or any other nature.”
  • “Article 8. Right to a Fair Trial.  2. Every person accused of a criminal offense has the right to be presumed innocent so long as his guilt has not been proven according to law. During the proceedings, every person is entitled, with full equality, to the following minimum guarantees: .
  • b. prior notification in detail to the accused of the charges against him; . . .
  • h. the right to appeal the judgment to a higher court.”
  • “Article 9. Freedom from Ex Post Facto Laws. No one shall be convicted of any act or omission that did not constitute a criminal offense, under the applicable law, at the time it was committed. A heavier penalty shall not be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the criminal offense was committed. If subsequent to the commission of the offense the law provides for the imposition of a lighter punishment, the guilty person shall benefit therefrom.”
  • Article 25. Right to Judicial Protection. 1. Everyone has the right to simple and prompt recourse, or any other effective recourse, to a competent court or tribunal for protection against acts that violate his fundamental rights recognized by the constitution or laws of the state concerned or by this Convention, even though such violation may have been committed by persons acting in the course of their official duties.”

Note that the above provisions of the Convention do not specifically address the issue of termination of judges. The Commission, however, concluded that the principle of judicial independence was set forth in Article 8 (1) and “represents one of the basic pillars of a democratic system” and that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights had stated that “one of the principal purposes of the separation of public powers is to guarantee the independence of judges.” Thus, “the duty of respecting and ensuring that right [of persons facing prosecution or appearing before courts] has implications that are directly related to the procedures whereby judges are appointed and removed.” Indeed, said the IACHR in this case, it and the Inter-American Court “have repeatedly held that the principle of judicial independence gives rise to a series of guarantees: appropriate appointment procedures, fixed terms in office, and guarantees against external pressure.”  Therefore, judges “can be removed from office solely for the commission of disciplinary offences that are previously and clearly set out in the Constitution or domestic law, and in strict compliance with the guarantees of due process.”

As a result, the IACHR recommended that the State of Ecuador (1) reinstate the petitioners in similar positions with the same remuneration, benefits and rank for the period of time remaining in their four year terms or to reasonably indemnify them; (2) pay them their wages and other benefits from the time of termination to the end of their terms; (3) publicize the violations; and (4) adopt measures to assure the independence of the judiciary.

This July 22, 2011, decision was kept confidential while Ecuador considered whether and how to implement these recommendations. However, by November 28, 2011, the IACHR concluded that Ecuador was not going to implement the recommendations. The Commission, therefore, referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and asked the Court to order Ecuador to do what the Commission had recommended.

According to the Commission, this case was not just important for Ecuador. The Commission told the Court, this case “will allow [the Court] to establish principles that will contribute to the strengthen[ing] of the independence of the Judiciary in the democracies of the Hemisphere” and will “affect the inter-American public order of human rights.” We now await further proceedings in this case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Judicial independence is not just an important issue in Ecuador and the rest of Latin America. It is also an issue in the U.S.A. with Newt Gingrich’s outrageous recent suggestion that U.S. federal law enforcement authorities should arrest judges who make controversial rulings in order to compel them to justify their decisions before congressional hearings. It surfaces too in the European Union’s current concern over Hungary’s proposed mandatory early retirement rules  to force out judges and allow the government to appoint their replacements.

International Law Regarding Freedom of Religion

We in the U.S. are familiar with our constitutional protections of freedom of religion.[1] In addition, international law has recognized the right to religious freedom. Here are the most important ones for those of us in the Western Hemisphere.

Under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”[2]

Under Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”[3]

Under Article 12(1) of the American Convention on Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience and of religion. This right includes freedom to maintain or to change one’s religion or beliefs, and freedom to profess or disseminate one’s religion or beliefs, either individually or together with others, in public or in private.”[4]

In addition, under Article 1(A)(2) of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a “refugee” is defined to include “any person” who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of . . . religion. . . , is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country . . . . ” [5]

[1] U.S. Const., First Amend.

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/b1udhr.htm.

[3] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/b3ccpr.htm.

[4]  American Convention on Human Rights, http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/oasinstr/zoas3con.htm.

[5] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees,  http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html.