Salvadoran Responses to Invalidation of Its Amnesty Law

As reported in a prior post, the Supreme Court of El Salvador in July 2016 invalidated the country’s 1993 Amnesty Law that had barred criminal prosecution of the most serious violations of human rights during their civil war.

In response the Salvadoran government is preparing legislation to implement that decision and replace that Amnesty Law. In addition, there have been recent important developments regarding three of those violations: (1) the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; (2) the 1981 El Mozote massacre; and (3) the 1987 assassination of human rights advocate Herbert Anaya Sanabria. All of these developments originally were posted in Tim’s El Salvador Blog and are re-posted or incorporated here with permission.[1]

New Legislation

The Salvadoran government is preparing draft legislation to implement the court ruling and replace the amnesty law. According to an article in Salvador’s El Faro newspaper, the Salvadoran government is seeking advice on such a new law from Juanita Goebertus, an expert Colombian lawyer who participated in the peace accords signed by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016. [2]

The key issue is what crimes that were committed during the war are not protected from prosecution and those that are so protected.  The ruling of the court only nullified the amnesty law as it applied to “crimes against humanity.”

Tim’s El Salvador Blog suggests the only crimes against humanity and perhaps war crimes are not exempt from prosecution, but I think that is too narrow. An apparent quotation from the Supreme Court decision in that Blog says the non-exemption applies to “the cases contained in the report of the Truth Commission, as well as those others of equal or greater gravity and transcendence.”

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court provides in Article 1 that it shall have “jurisdiction over persons for the most serious crimes of international concern,” which are specified (with definitions) in Articles 6, 7 and 8 as “crimes against humanity,” “war crimes,” and “the crime of genocide.”[3]

According to Tim’s Blog, another issue to be addressed in the new legislation is “whether perpetrators of crimes against humanity will face criminal punishment including jail time.” A Salvadoran newspaper “suggests that both ARENA and the FMLN would like legislation in which the possibility of jail time is eliminated.  What is left unclear is what process will exist to judge responsibility for these crimes and what reparations might be available to victims.    Nor is it clear if the victims have had a voice in defining any of this process.”

Romero Assassination

On March 23–the day before the 37th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Romero–“human rights lawyers filed a petition with a court in the capital of San Salvador to reopen the case of this assassination.   They are asking the court to proceed judicially to establish the facts and the responsible parties for this horrible crime.” [4]

El Mozote Massacre

Previous posts have discussed the 1981 massacre  near the Salvadoran village of El Mozote and various legal proceedings regarding this atrocity. [5]

“Twenty ex-members of El Salvador’s military, including high-ranking generals, [this March] have been cited to appear in court in San Francisco Gotera, in Morazan department, in connection with the 1981 El Mozote massacre. On March 29 a Salvadoran court held a hearing to notify nine of these men, including former Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia, ex-chief-of staff Rafael Flores, five other former colonels and two others who did not appear in court that they are being investigated for their alleged roles in the El Mozote massacre. Former Defense Minister Garcia had no comments to the court or the press regarding this development. On March 30 an additional nine former military officials were similarly notified. [6]

This is the first case in a court in El Salvador involving El Mozote and the first case to proceed after last year’s nullification of the 1993 Amnesty Law.”

“The cited officers include  general José Guillermo García, ex-minister of defense; general Rafael Flores Lima, ex-chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces; Colonel Jaime Flores Grijalva, ex-commander of the Third Infantry Brigade; General Juan Rafael Bustillo, ex-commander of the Salvadoran Air Force; and other lower ranking officers involved in the events.”

“The crimes alleged include murders, aggravated rape, kidnapping, acts of terrorism and other offenses.”

“The actions of the judge in San Francisco Gotera responds to a petition by the legal team for the victims headed by Tutela Legal ‘María Julia Hernández.’    The human rights lawyers have complained about the slow, passive approach being taken by the Attorney General’s office which has not moved the case forward despite the removal of the Amnesty Law and a judgment of the Inter-American Court for Human Rights requiring the government of El Salvador to investigate and prosecute these crimes against humanity.”[7]

“The December 1981 El Mozote massacre was perhaps the worst atrocity of El Salvador’s twelve year civil war.  All but one of the civilians taking refuge in the small village of El Mozote, more than 800 men, women, children and babies, were brutally killed by the Salvadoran army.  It is a tragedy the world must never forget.”

Assassination of Human Rights Advocate Herbert Anaya Sanabria

“Salvadoran Attorney General Douglas Meléndez announced that his office is reopening the case involving the 1987 assassination of human rights advocate Herbert Anaya Sanabria.According to an Amnesty International Report in 1988, his killing, carried out by men in plain clothes using silencers on their guns, followed repeated harassment and threats directed at Anaya himself and at other independent human rights monitors in El Salvador.” 

“Although a trial convicted an ERP guerrilla member,Jorge Miranda, for the murder, most believe that the assassination was carried out by government forces. Miranda was released from prison because of the now invalidated Amnesty Law, but the Attorney General said that Miranda would need to be tried again and that if any relative or other interested persons had information about other material actors or intellectual authors of the crime, the prosecutors would pursue any leads.”

Conclusion

We will be paying close attention to Tim’s El Salvador Blog to keep us apprised of further developments on these matters.

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[1] Amnesty or restorative justice?, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (Mar. 28, 2017); Oscar Romero–37 years after his assassination, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (Mar. 24, 2017); Court cites high military commanders in El Mozote massacre case, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (Mar. 15, 2017); Salvador Attorney General opens new war crimes case, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (Mar. 22, 2017); Historic first step towards justice at El Mozote, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (Mar. 31, 2017). Congratulations and appreciation for Tim’s faithful publication of his blog for the last 13 years.

[2] Rauda, Presidencia busca una nueva ley que permita a los criminales de guerra evitar la cárcel, El Faro (Mar. 26, 2017).

[3] The Rome Statute also includes in Article 5(1) (d) “the crime of aggression” as within the jurisdiction of the ICC, but it was not defined until the States Parties did so at the Review Conference of June 2010, and its ratification and applicability is a complex subject that does not need to be addressed here since the crime of aggression seems less relevant to instances of civil war like El Salvador’s.

 

[4] There have been numerous posts about Romero and his assassination. See posts listed in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[5] See posts listed in the “El Mozote Massacre” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: EL SALVADOR. A recent article describes the aftermath of the massacre. (Maslin, The Salvadoran Town That Can’t Forget, The Nation (Mar. 30, 2017).)

[6] Ramos, El Mozote sienta en el banquillo al general del Ejército más oscuro, El Faro (Mar. 30, 2017).; Rauda, Pedro Chicas resurrects to prosecute those responsible for El Mozote, El Faro (Apr. 1, 2017)(Google translate).

[7] The decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding the El Mozote massacre was discussed in this post: The el Mozote Massacre: Inter-American Court of Human Rights Determines El Salvador Violated the American Convention on Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 16, 2012).

 

 

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.