President Trump Announces Categories for U.S. Admission of Refugees for Fiscal 2021             

On September 30, the U.S. State Department announced that President Trump had reduced the U.S. quota for admission of refugees to 15,000 for Fiscal Year 2021 (October 1, 2020-September 30, 2021) that would be documented in a subsequent presidential determination.[1]

That Presidential Determination confirming the 15,000 limitation was issued on October 28 in the form of a memorandum to the Secretary of State. It also announced allocations “among refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States.”[2] Here are those allocations:

Number Category
5,000 Refugees who: have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion; or are within a category of aliens established under subsections (b) and (c) of section 599D of Title V, Public Law 101-167, as amended (the Lautenberg and Specter Amendments). [(i) “aliens who are or were nationals and residents of the Soviet Union and who share common characteristics that identify them as targets of persecution in the Soviet Union on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” including “nationals and residents of the Soviet Union and who are Jews or Evangelical Christians ” and (ii) “aliens who are or were nationals and residents of Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia and who share common characteristics that identify them as targets of persecution in such respective foreign state on such an account.
4,000 Refugees who are within a category of aliens listed in section 1243(a) of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007, Title XII, Div. A, Public Law 110-181, as amended: “[1) Iraqis who were or are employed by the United States Government, in Iraq;(2) Iraqis who establish to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State that they are or were employed in Iraq by–(A) a media or nongovernmental organization headquartered in the United States; or (B) an organization or entity closely associated with the United States mission in Iraq that has received United States Government funding through an official and documented contract, award, grant, or cooperative agreement; and 3) spouses, children, and parents whether or not  accompanying or following to join, and sons, daughters, and siblings of aliens described in paragraph (1), paragraph (2), or section 1244(b)(1); and(4) Iraqis who are members of a religious or minority community, have been identified by the Secretary of State, or the designee of the Secretary, as a persecuted group, and have close family members . . . in the United States.”
1,000 Refugees who are nationals or habitual residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.
5,000 Other refugees in the following groups: those referred to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) by a United States Embassy in any location; those who will be admitted through a Form I-730 following-to-join petition or who gain access to the USRAP for family reunification through the P-3 process; those currently located in Australia, Nauru, or Papua New Guinea who gain access to the USRAP pursuant to an arrangement between the United States and Australia; those who are nationals or habitual residents of Hong Kong, Venezuela, or Cuba; and those in the USRAP who were in “Ready for Departure” status as of September 30, 2019.
15,000 TOTAL

In addition, the President authorized the Secretary of State, subject to certain conditions, “to transfer unused admissions from a particular allocation above to one or more other allocations, if there is a need for greater admissions for the allocation to which the admissions will be transferred.”

The President, subject to certain conditions, also authorized the Secretary of State to consider “the following persons . . ., if otherwise qualified, . . . [as] refugees for the purpose of admission to the United States within their countries of nationality or habitual residence: a. persons in Cuba; b. persons in Eurasia and the Baltics; c. persons in Iraq; d. persons in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador; and e. in exceptional circumstances, persons identified by a United States Embassy in any location.”

The President specified “that persons from certain high-risk areas of terrorist presence or control, including Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, shall not be admitted as refugees, except those refugees of special humanitarian concern:  (1) who have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion; (2) were referred to the USRAP by a United States Embassy in any location; or (3) who will be admitted through a Form I-730 following-to-join petition or who gain access to the USRAP for family reunification through the P‑3 process.  The threat to United States national security and public safety posed by the admission of refugees from high-risk areas of terrorist presence or control is significant and cannot be fully mitigated at this time.”

Another specification by the President was “ for FY 2021, newly admitted refugees should be placed, to the maximum extent possible, in States and localities that have clearly expressed their willingness to receive refugees under the Department of State’s Reception and Placement Program.  Such cooperation ensures that refugees are resettled in communities that are eager and equipped to support their successful integration into American society and the labor force.”

Finally the President determined “hat assistance to or on behalf of persons applying for admission to the United States as part of the overseas refugee admissions program will contribute to the foreign policy interests of the United States, and I accordingly designate such persons for this purpose.”

Conclusion

 The principal objection to this presidential action is the overall limitation of resettled refugees to 15,000 in one year. The identification of the refugees in the above categories and their allocated numbers presumably are justified.

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[1] U.S. Reduces Refugee Admissions to 15,000 for Fiscal 2021, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 2, 2020).

[2] White House, Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2021 (Oct. 28, 2020).

 

Objections to Proposed U.S. Rule Changing Asylum Procedures

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) has proposed a rule that would significantly shorten the time for asylum seekers to file their paperwork for asylum and to amend that paperwork.[1] Given my experience as a pro bono attorney for such individuals, I filed with the EOIR a comment objecting to that proposed rule. Here is that comment followed by another objection by a Minnesota lawyer and friend, Steven Thal.

My Objection to the Proposed Rule[2]

“I am writing to oppose EOIR’s proposed rule to curtail human rights of asylum seekers by limiting timelines for applications and unlawfully restricting the type of evidence presented. The rule represents yet another attempt to restrict the right of people to obtain protection from persecution and torture—rights that the U.S. has agreed to meaningfully implement. By putting up nearly-insurmountable obstacles in that process, this proposed rule violates the rights of asylum seekers and, therefore, U.S. and international law. For the following reasons, I request that this rule be withdrawn in its entirety.”

I.“The 15-day filing deadline for asylum- and withholding-only removal proceedings will contravene our international and domestic laws.”

”The proposed rule will violate our obligations under the UN Refugee Convention and U.S. law by impinging on the ability for people in asylum- and withholding-only proceedings to adequately prepare their case. The rule proposes to require filing within 15 days of the person’s first hearing. For most in asylum- and withholding-only proceedings, this will be an impossible task as many are recently-arrived in the U.S., lack sufficient language skills to prepare a filing that must be in English, lack the resources to pay the now-required $50 fee, and are unlikely to secure reliable counsel on that timeline. Asylum seekers are entitled to present their case and be represented by counsel. This new rule infringes on those rights and must be withdrawn. Moreover, the rule will unduly impact attorneys and service providers—particularly nonprofit providers—who will be overburdened and unable to find pro bono counsel willing to complete applications on such a timeline”

II.“The proposed restrictions on evidence are a blatant attempt to deny asylum protections and improperly restrict due process.”

“The proposed changes to evidence are unlawful and blatantly targeted to discourage asylum applications. This violates our obligations under the UN Refugee Convention as well as U.S. law.”

“The proposed rule proposes to make all evidence other than U.S. government reports presumptively unreliable. Such change would allow immigration judges to discount local and international news sources, reports by both local and international nongovernmental organizations and even United Nations reports. The only evidence under the new rule that would be presumed credible would be reports prepared by the U.S. Government, i.e., opposing counsel in an asylum case.”

“This rule is unjustified and must be withdrawn as local and international sources provide nuanced and expert analysis that the U.S Government reports often lack due to capacity, know-how and diplomatic pressures. Moreover, because U.S. Government reports will be prepared by the same branch as the opposing counsel in asylum cases, the rule violates basic understandings of due process rights by presumptively finding one side credible. And, the rule allows immigration judges to introduce their own evidence into the record, further violating due process by eliminating their role as a neutral arbiter.”

III. “The proposed 30-day timeframe for correcting errors will deny asylum to those who need protection, thereby contravening international and domestic law on nonrefoulment.”

“The proposed rule further violates asylum seekers’ rights by restricting their ability to file an application. The proposed rule, though espousing efficient processing of applications, removes the requirement that EOIR return an application within 30 days of filing or presume it properly filed. Yet, it then gives the asylum seeker only 30 days to correct any deficiencies and will deem abandoned and deny any application not corrected in that time. This rule is a clear attempt to allow the Government to deny bona fide asylum claims under the guise of procedural efficiencies. Moreover, it will violate our international nonrefoulment obligations by denying asylum applications due to procedural defects rather than substance and, therefore, returning people to countries in which they will be persecuted or tortured.”

IV. “The proposed 180-day case completion timeline and restrictions on continuances improperly penalizes asylum applicants for the court’s inefficiencies.”

 “The proposed rule passes-on to the applicant the inefficiencies and failure of EOIR to provide sufficient resources—while eliminating case management techniques such as administrative closure—by requiring applications be adjudicated within 180 days absent a very limited set of exceptional circumstances. The rule will mean in practice that bona fide asylum applicants are denied and removed to countries in which they will face persecution or torture because they will be foreclosed from requesting continuances to sufficiently prepare their case. By essentially barring continuances and demanding immigration judges adjudicate cases on impossible timelines given backlog and complexity of asylum cases—as well as the myriad new restrictions and processing requirements created over the past four years— the proposed rule will result in improperly decided cases, increasing the rate of appeals and threatening to deny those who truly need our protection. Such a timeline will also present immense challenges to attorneys and pro bono service providers who will be challenged to represent clients to the best of their abilities without the ability to request time to prepare. This infringes on the due process rights of asylum clients and should be withdrawn.”

V. “My Personal Experience As a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer Demonstrates the Utter Insanity of this Proposed Regulation.”

“In the mid-1980s I was a partner in a major Minneapolis law firm with 20 years of experience representing fee-paying clients in business litigation. I had not studied immigration law in law school or thereafter and had no knowledge of that field in general or refugee and asylum law in particular. But for various professional and personal reasons, I decided that I wanted to be a pro bono lawyer for an asylum seeker from Central America.”

“Fortunately for me and many other Minnesota lawyers, then and now, a Minnesota non-profit organization—[Minnesota] Advocates for Human Rights—provided a course in refugee and asylum law for lawyers like me and the support of experienced immigration lawyers that enabled me and others, then and now, to become pro bono asylum lawyers.”

“With that support from this system and my law firm, I thus embarked in the mid-1980’s on my first pro bono case for a Salvadoran asylum seeker and tried the case in the Immigration Court with the assistance of an experienced immigration attorney. We lost the case, but filed an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, and under the laws at that time our client maintained his work permit and continued to live and work in the Twin Cities.”

“Thereafter with the assistance of [Minnesota] Advocates for Human Rights I was a pro bono attorney for another Salvadoran asylum seeker, whose case prompted me in April 1989 to go to that country, at my own expense, to do some investigations in his case and learn more about that country more generally. This trip was during the Salvadoran Civil War and on the day that I arrived her attorney general was assassinated with a car bomb. That subsequent week, therefore, was tense and dangerous, but to my surprise turned out to be the most important religious experience of my life as I started to learn about the courageous work of Archbishop (now Saint) Oscar Romero, the Jesuit priests at the University of Central America (six of whom were murdered by the Salvadoran military later that same year), Bishop Menardo Gomez of the Lutheran Church of El Salvador and many others. Afterwards my second Salvadoran client was granted protection by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.”

“In the 1990s I was a successful pro bono lawyer for an Afghan’s affirmative application for asylum and later for U.S. citizenship. Thereafter until my retirement in 2001 I also had success as a pro bono attorney for asylum seekers from Colombia, Somalia and Burma. All of this was made possible by the assistance of Advocates for Human Rights and experienced immigration lawyers and by the support of my law firm.”

“As a result of this experience, I can testify that asylum seekers in the U.S. desperately need the assistance and guidance of able pro bono attorneys since almost all such individuals do not have the financial resources to retain fee-based attorneys.”

“Moreover, I can testify to the time constraints associated with such pro bono representation.”

“First, organizations like Advocates have procedures to screen potential asylum applicants and identify those who appear to have credible claims and then seek to find an a competent attorney who is willing to represent, pro bono, such applicants. These organizations also have to develop and produce at least annual programs to educate potential pro bono attorneys about refugee and asylum law and develop other ways to recruit such lawyers to volunteer their services to asylum seekers. That takes time and effort and financial support by charitable contributions from the community. Advocates for Human Rights continues to be successful in these efforts.”

“Second, once an attorney agrees to take such a case, pro bono, he or she needs to fit that case into his or her caseload and obligations to existing clients, especially fee-paying clients. Once the attorney starts working on the pro bono asylum case, he or she may identify documents that need to be obtained from another place in the U.S. or foreign country and/or need to be translated from a foreign language into English. An interpreter may be needed for conferences with the client or other witnesses. Eventually the attorney must prepare documents for the asylum application and appear with the client in Immigration Court or at interviews on affirmative claims. In addition, the case may require the attorney to travel to another location. All of these actions by an attorney are necessary to provide competent advice and service to the pro bono client and all have their time requirements.”

“Third, these time pressures on the relevant non-profit organizations and pro bono asylum attorneys are even more intense now in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic disruptions and complications.”

“In short, it would be impossible under the proposed regulation for asylum seekers to obtain the competent pro bono representation they so desperately need. The proposed regulation is utter insanity.”

Steven Thal’s Objection to the Proposed Rule[3]

“I have been practicing immigration law since 1982 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I also am a past Chair of the Immigration Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association. I have served as a past Chair of the Minnesota/Dakotas American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) Chapter and previously served as its Vice Chair and Secretary/Treasurer. I have served on the AILA Essential Workers Committee, AILA Immigration Works Committee. The law firm I established currently has three full-time associate attorneys involved in our practice. (www.thalvisa.com.)”

“First, I endorse the comments on this proposed rule made by my friend and fellow Minnesota attorney, Duane W. Krohnke (Comment Tracking Number: kgl-2g3o-0vel.) “

“Second, although my two associates and I along with other full-time Minnesota immigration attorneys represent some asylum seekers on a pro bono basis, the demand for such services exceeds our collective ability to do so. Therefore, we need the assistance of non-immigration attorneys to be pro bono lawyers for other asylum seekers after these lawyers have obained education about asylum law from Advocates for Human Rights. In short, the only way that asylum applicants in the Twin Cities and Minnesota can obtain a pro bono attorney is through organizations like Advocates.”

“Third, I would add that it would be nearly impossible to meet the proposed deadlines in this proposed rule given the difficulty in reaching clients who are in detention in remotely held jail facilities, especially since ICE can move these individuals without prior notification. Just getting a G-28 Notice of Appearance of Attorney signed is a logistical nightmare. Gathering evidence, locating witnesses, obtaining supporting evidence cannot be accomplished effectively within the short times in the proposed rule.”

Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, we call on the Department to withdraw the proposed rule in its entirety.

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[1] Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), Procedures for Asylum and Withholding of Removal (Sept. 23, 2020).

[2] Comment on FR Doc # 2020-2107, EOIR Procedures for Asylum and Withholding of Removal (by Duane Krohnke) (Oct. 22, 2020), Comment ID: EOIR-2020-0005-1113;Tracking Number kgl-2g3o-Ovel.

[3] Comment on FR Doc # 2020-2107, EOIR Procedures for Asylum and Withholding of Removal (by Steven Thal) (Oct. 22, 2020) Comment ID: EOIR-2020-0005-????; Tracking Number: 1K4-0jny-mh2v.

 

Guilty Judgment in 1989 Murder of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador   

On September 11, 2020, Spain’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, found former Salvadoran Colonel, Inocente Orlando Montano (now 77 years old), guilty of the “terrorist murders” of  five Jesuit priests who were Spaniards, in San Salvador, the Capital of El Salvador, 31 years ago. The court found that Montano took part in the decision to “execute Ignacio Ellacuría as well as anyone in the area – regardless of who they were – so as not to leave behind any witnesses.”

The court then sentenced Montano to 26 years, eight months and one day for each of the five murders for a total of 133 years. However, he will not spend more than 30 years in prison, the judges said. This was after a trial of the only Salvadoran military officer who was extradited to Spain to stand trial under the international legal principle of universal jurisdiction authorizing jurisdiction in a state other than the site of the crime for human rights crimes.[1]

The Spanish NGO that was involved in the case, Guernica Centre for International Justice, published a background of the case, daily reports about the trial and the court’s decision. [2]

Also killed  in the same event were a Salvadoran Jesuit and two Salvadoran women, but those killings were not before the Spanish court.

The path to this legal judgment has been long and complicated.

The Murder of the Jesuit Priests

The murder of the Jesuit priests, one of the most horrendous crimes during the country’s civil war, occurred in the early hours of November 16, 1989, when a group of Salvadoran soldiers entered the campus of the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador. They made their way to the residences of the Jesuit priests, who were UCA professors and advocates for the poor people of the country, and shot and killed the five Spanish priests–Father Ignacio Ellacuria (UCA’s Rector), Ignacio Martin-Barò (UCA’s Vice Rector), Segundo Montes (Director of UCA’s Human Rights Center), Armando Lòpez and Juan Ramôn Moreno.  The murdered Salvadoran Jesuit was Joaquin Lôpez y Lôpez, and the two murdered Salvadoran women were the priests’ cook and her daughter.[3]

Salvadoran Legal Proceedings Over This Crime

Immediately afterwards high officials of the Salvadoran military engaged in attempting to cover up its involvement in this horrendous crime, but international outrage and pressure caused the country to create a Salvadoran commission that investigated and reported that four officers and five soldiers were responsible for this crime and they along with another officer were brought to trial in that country for this crime in September 1991. A jury decided that the five officers were guilty of various crimes and sentenced them to prison, but acquitted the five soldiers. [4]

In 1992 the Salvadoran legislature enacted a General Amnesty Law that led that year to the release from prison of those convicted of the Jesuit murders.[5] In 2016, however, the Salvadoran Supreme Court held that the General Amnesty Law was unconstitutional, and at least one of those who had been convicted, sentenced and then released under that Law (Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno) was ordered to return to prison after the invalidation of that Law.[6]

The Truth Commission for El Salvador[7]

On January 16, 1992, the Salvadoran government and the FMLN rebels signed the peace agreement to end the civil war. One of its provisions was the creation of the Truth Commission for El Salvador, whose report on March 15, 1993 had detailed findings about the murder of the Jesuits, including the following:

  • “There is substantial evidence that on the night of 15 November 1989, then Colonel René Emilio Ponce, in the presence of and 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 two days previously had been sent to search the priest’s residence.”
  • “There is full evidence that:

(a) That same night of 15 November, Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides informed the officers at the Military College of the order he had been given for the murder. When he asked whether anyone had any objection, they all remained silent.

(b) 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.”

Prior Proceedings in Spain’s Case[8]

In November 2008 a U.S. NGO (Center for Justice & Accountability) and a Spanish NGO filed a criminal case over the killing of the Jesuits  against 14 Salvadoran military officers and the country’s former President Cristiani. In January 2009 the Spanish court accepted the case against the military officers and soldiers, but declined to do so with respect to Cristiani although reserving the right to do so later.

On May 30, 2011, the Spanish court issued an indictment and arrest warrants for 20 of the top leaders of El Salvador’s civil war, accusing them of crimes against humanity and state terrorism in meticulously planning and carrying out the killings of the Jesuit priests in November 1989. One was Inocente Orlando Montano, who in 1989 was the vice minister of public safety.

Subsequently in complicated proceedings El Salvador denied extradition of all these requests for those living in the country. Only Montano, who had been living in the U.S. and who had been tried and convicted for lying in U.S. immigration papers, was extradited to Spain by the U.S.

Conclusion

After this decision by the Spanish court, UCA requested the Criminal Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court to resolve a long-pending appeal by six other former military officers accused of involvement in the Jesuits murders so that their guilt can be adjudicated. UCA’s Rector, Andreu Oliva, said, “”We are confident that the evidence presented at the Spanish hearing will serve to hold a trial here in El Salvador, since it is evident that, given the indications in the sentence, there are other parties involved who are in El Salvador and that there is no reason why they are not judged in our country.” This requires the “urgent” opening of the archives of the country’s Armed Forces. [9]

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[1] Assoc. Press, Spain imprisons ex-colonel for Jesuits slain in El Salvador, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2020); Jones, Ex-Salvadoran colonel jailed for 1989 murder of Spanish Jesuits, Guardian (Sept. 11, 2020); Jones, Spanish trial brings hope of justice for victims of Salvadoran death squads, Guardian (Sept. 7, 2020); Marroquin, 133 years in prison for ex-colonel Montano for the Jesuits case, elsalvador.com (Sept. 12, 2020); Spanish court rules in Jesuit massacre case.elsalvadorperspectives (Sept. 11, 2020);

[2] Guernica Centre, Trial Date Set for the Jesuits Massacre Case (Feb. 18, 2020); (background of case); Guernica Centre, The Jesuit Massacre Trial 2020: Daily Trial Briefings: #01 (06/08/20), # 02 (06/10/20), # 03 (06/11/20), # 04 (07/08/20), # 05 (07/09/20), # 06 07/10/20), # 07 (07/13/20), # 08 (07/14/20), # 09 (07/15/20); Guernica Centre, The Jesuit Massacre Trial, guernica37.com (Sept. 11, 2020). This NGO’s name memorializes the April 28, 1937 bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by German Nazi warplanes at the request of Spanish General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The number of casualties originally was estimated to be over 1,700, but now is believed to have been under 300. “Guernica” is also the name of a famous Picasso painting about the bombing on display at the Spanish Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. (Bombing of Guernica, Wikipedia; Guernica (Picasso), Wikipedia.)

[3] See International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 2, 2011).

[4] International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Military’s Attempted Cover-Up of Its Committing the Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 7, 2011); International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Criminal Case Regarding the Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 8, 2011).

[5] International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case, dwkcommentaries.com (June 11, 2011).

[6] Reinstatement of Sentence of Former Salvadoran Military Officer for Participating in Murder of Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2017).

[7]  United Nations, El Salvador Agreements: The Path to Peace  From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador (July 1992); Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (Mar. 15, 1993).

[8]  International Criminal Justice: The Spanish Court’s Criminal Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 15, 2011); International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of  Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (May 31, 201i); Former Salvadoran Military Officer Extradited from U.S. to Spain for Trial in Jesuits Murder Case, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 1, 2017). See generally posts listed in “The Jesuit Priests” section of List of Posts to dwkcommantaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[9] Marroquin, The UCA asks the Criminal Chamber to resolve the appeal of the Jesuits case, elsalvador.com (Sept. 11, 2011); Calderon, Condemnation of Montano gives hope to prosecute masterminds of Jesuit massacre, says UCA, Laprensa Grafica (Sept. 11, 2020)

Another Reflection on 40th Anniversary of Oscar Romero’s Assassination

Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (now Saint Romero) has been a personal saint for this Protestant (Presbyterian) since 1989, and I was blessed to be able to attend the 20th and 30th anniversary commemorations of his 1980 brutal assassination and lament I was unable to attend the 40th anniversary this March 24th.[1]

A moving reflection on the 40th anniversary has been provided by Carlos Colorado, the author of Eminem Doctrin, a blog about Romero’s teachings, and Super Martyrio, a blog advocating since 2006 for Romero’s canonization that in fact happened in 2018.[2] Here is what Colorado said.

“In March 2000 I was in El Salvador for what was then the 20th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination. . . . At a reception in a trendy boarding house in western San Salvador, I brashly suggested to the guests that Romero could become El Salvador’s Socrates—who was forced to drink poison by fervid Athenians, but was later embraced by the city as its most quintessential son. It fell to the late, legendary NCR [National Catholic Reporter] correspondent Gary MacEóin to let me down gently, explaining that the entrenched hostility toward Romero from the powerful meant that he would be persona non grata to the political establishment indefinitely.”

“Of course, MacEóin was right about the elites; Romero is ‘not a saint of their devotion’—as the Salvadoran expression goes—to this day. But many things were already changing by the year 2000 and many more things have changed since, to make Romero’s remarkable rehabilitation possible. While Romero’s memory was suppressed in El Salvador during the 80s and 90s, it was kept alive abroad with glowing biographies and film portrayals, including Oliver Stone’s ‘Salvador’ (1986) and the modest indie pic “Romero” (1989).[3] In 1990, the church opened its sainthood investigation, but it seemed as if, for the rest of the decade, that project was shelved.”

“While Romero’s sainthood file gathered dust at the Vatican, on the streets his image was ascendant, with larger and larger commemorations of his March 24 anniversary each year, not only in San Salvador, but also in London and Rome. Things began to change in official circles in El Salvador in 2004, when Tony Saca, who had been an altar boy for Romero, was elected president. Although a member of the party founded by the man thought to have ordered Romero’s assassination, Saca petitioned Pope Benedict XVI to permit Romero’s sainthood cause to advance. But the real sea change came with the 2009 election of Mauricio Funes, the first left-wing president, who promised to make Romero the moral compass for his government. Funes named a new traffic artery after Romero, renamed the airport after Romero, and installed a heroic painting of Romero in the presidential mansion’s great hall.”

“Perhaps the largest transformation occurred in 2015, when Romero was beatified in El Salvador, showing the country how admired he was when hundreds of thousands turned out for the large-scale spectacle.[4] The church made a concerted effort then to educate the population about Romero. Many read his homilies and learned about his actions and actual views for the first time, often refuting what they had heard in official disinformation. There were many who actually believed Romero had materially assisted the guerrillas, supplying arms and openly espousing Marxist propaganda. The publicity campaign and educational effort that accompanied the beatification helped to blunt extreme views.”

“Ultimately, Gary MacEóin was right, though, that Salvadorans would not be ready to buy into Romero’s message. With all of the 40th anniversary commemorations, including an emblematic candlelit street procession, cancelled due to Coronavirus, this anniversary will be very reminiscent of the first ten years when Romero memorials were banned. This year, instead of public memorials, Romero devotees are being asked to light candles at home. Indeed, it appears that in El Salvador, Romero is “hidden in plain sight.” That is, he is everywhere: his name is at the airport, on the roadway artery, and his image is in the presidential state room and in street murals all over the country. But the current generation, including the new millennial president, find the most universal Salvadoran a stranger they do not know.”

“In a sense, the muted Romero commemoration will be the most faithful to the spirit of the man. Just when it seemed he was in danger of becoming “another little wooden saint” (as activists feared he would become), Romero is again associated with austerity, sacrifice and restraint. I suspect he would not want it any other way.”

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[1] Remembering Archbishop Oscar Romero (Now Saint Romero),dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 24, 2020)   See also Remembering Oscar Romero in Film, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2011)(20th anniversary); list of posts in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[2] Colorado, Muted 40th Romero anniversary recalls the early days, El Salvador Perspectives (Mar. 23, 2020).

[3]  See Remembering Oscar Romero in Film, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 14, 2011).

[4]  See Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero To Be Beatified on May 23, 2015, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 13, 2015); The Canonization of Oscar Romero, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2018).

 

Remembering Archbishop Oscar Romero (Now Saint Romero) 

As a result of being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, 1986-2001, I learned about the amazing work of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, and regarded him as my personal saint long before he was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.[1]

I, therefore, was in El Salvador on March 24, 2000 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Romero’s assassination and on March 24, 2010 for the 30th anniversary.[2]

I lament that I was not there this year for today’s 40th anniversary. But Tim Muth, the creator and operator of the wonderful blog, El Salvador Perspectives, has suggested we honor him today with the following passage from his homily of January 21, 1979:[3]

The present form of the world passes away,

and there remains only the joy of having used this world

to establish God’s rule here.

All pomp, all triumphs, all selfish capitalism,

all the false successes of life will pass

with the world’s form.

 

All of that passes away.

What does not pass away is love.

When one has turned money, property, work in one’s calling

into service of others,

then the joy of sharing

and the feeling that all are one’s family

does not pass away.

In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

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[1] See the list of posts in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[2] These visits to El Salvador are discussed in Oscar Romero’s Tomb, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 10, 2011).

[3] 40th anniversary of Romero assassination calls for solidarity, El Salvador Perspectives (Mar. 24, 2020).

U.S. Sanctions 13 Former Salvadoran Military Officers for 1989 Murders of Jesuit Priests

On January 29, 2020, the U.S. State Department sanctioned 13 former Salvadoran military officers for the 1989 murders of the Jesuit priests.[1]

Ranging “in rank from general to private, [the following men] were involved in the planning and execution of the extrajudicial killings of six Jesuit priests and two others taking refuge at the Jesuit pastoral center on November 16, 1989 on the campus of Central American University in El Salvador:”  Juan Rafael Bustillo, Juan Orlando Zepeda, Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, Francisco Elena Fuentes, Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos, José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona, Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, Angel Pérez Vásquez, and José Alberto Sierra Ascencio.”

Under a U.S. statute, these individuals “and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States.”

The Department’s statement also said, “The United States condemns all human rights abuses that took place on both sides of the brutal civil war in El Salvador, including those committed by governmental and non-governmental parties.” The statement concluded:

  • “The United States supports the ongoing accountability, reconciliation, and peace efforts in El Salvador.  We value our ongoing working relationship with the Salvadoran Armed Forces, but will continue to use all available tools and authorities, as appropriate, to address human rights violations and abuses around the world no matter when they occurred or who perpetrated them.  Today’s actions underscore our support for human rights and our commitment to promoting accountability for perpetrators and encouraging reconciliation and a just and lasting peace.”

Comment

Even though the sanction is not that significant, it was appropriate for the U.S. to do this.

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[1] State Dep’t, Public Designation of Thirteen Former Salvadoran Military Officials Due to Involvement in Gross Violations of Human Rights (Jan. 29, 2020).

 

Request for U.S. Records in Salvadoran Trial Over 1981 El Mozote Massacre

On December 10-12,1981, during the Salvadoran Civil War, 978 men, women and children were massacred in the country’s northeastern village of El Mozote, the largest mass killing in Latin America’s modern history. Of those victims, 447 were age 12 and under while 4 were unborn infants in their mothers’ wombs.[1]

Eventually it had become clear that  “the Salvadoran military’s Atlacatl Battalion was responsible for the massacre. But details were vague. The commanders of the Battalion remained free. So do the former senior defense officials who allegedly issued orders to the battalion. In the 1990s, the country approved an amnesty that protected war criminals. That law was declared unconstitutional in 2016 by a Salvadoran court, thereby clearing the way for reopening a Salvadoran criminal trial over this massacre.

Early Stages of Salvadoran Trial Over the Massacre[2]

Since that year (2016) a Salvadoran court has been conducting a trial of 16 former Salvadoran military commanders, including a former minister of defense, over this massacre. They are charged with murder, torture, aggravated rape, forced disappearances, forced displacement, acts of terrorism, illegal detention, theft and damages. The evidence implicated the involvement of the Atlacatl Battalion, which had been U.S.-trained, in contradiction of the original Salvadoran and American accounts of the massacre.

U.S. Congressional Decision To Help Salvadoran Trial[3]

In 2019 in establishing the annual budget for international aid, the Congress directed the U.S. Government to cooperate with El Salvador’s investigation of the El Mozote massacre in the following language:

  • “The [House] Committee [on Appropriations] directs the Secretary of State to work with the relevant federal departments and agencies to, as appropriate, assist the judicial authorities of El Salvador in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the El Mozote massacre. [This includes] the identification of and provision of related documents, correspondence, reproductions of Salvadoran documents, and other similar materials from January 1981 to January 1983.”
  • The Senate version stated, “The Secretary of State… shall encourage the Salvadoran Armed Forces to cooperate with prosecutors and investigators, including providing access to archival documents.” The bill also included a mandate for the Department of State to update its report on the current status of the Salvadoran trial.

In response to the Senate’s direction, the State Department on February 5, 2020, sent a letter to the Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, with a report on the Salvadoran government’s cooperation with the court’s investigation.[4]

Recent Developments in Salvadoran Case[5]

In January 2020, a retired Salvadoran air force general, Juan Rafael Bustillo, testified in the trial that that the Atlacatl Battalion had carried out the massacre, which was the first time a Salvadoran military official had admitted such responsibility. He said he had not taken part in this event, but that it had been conducted on orders by Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, the commander of that Battalion who died in a 1984 helicopter accident.

After that testimony, the Salvadoran judge, Jorge Guzman Urquilla, concluded that the court did not have an important set of evidence: “U.S. documents that might shed light on how the massacre was planned and executed.”

 Salvadoran Judge’s Letter to U.S.Government[6]

As a result, the judge on January 27, 2020, sent a letter to  U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo with copies to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Robert P. Ashley, Jr. and CIA Director Gina Haspel. The judge’s letter requested “at minimum, any document in the possession of the Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other defense or intelligence agencies” relating to the El Mazote massacre. The letter stated the following:

  • “I recognize and am thankful for Congress’ initiative in asking the State Department to look into information that the United States may have on this case. As a judge, I would hope that it would provide me with greater certainty and clarity on these heinous acts that are now part of our country’s history, something we are not proud of, but which the historical record will demand we adjudicate.”
  • “The El Mozote trial is nearing the end of its investigative phase and will soon move to sentencing. Though some expert military testimony is forthcoming, the main phases of the examination portion have been completed. Service members, including several soldiers and a general, have given their accounts of the relevant events, confirming that the massacre took place as well as the role played by various units of the [Salvadoran] Armed Forces. A lack of documents is the last big hurdle. Despite [Salvadoran] President Nayib Bukele’s assurances that he will collaborate, the [Salvadoran] Army has stuck to the position it’s taken since the investigation began in the 1990s: that no relevant documents exist.”
  • “Even if they no longer can be found in El Salvador, it’s still possible that there are copies or records of these files in the United States, a country that was closely involved with and aware of the [Salvadoran] Army’s operations in the 80s as part of its foreign policy agenda.” Though a good deal of documents were already declassified [by President Bill Clinton in 1983], the letter also asked for “any other document that was not declassified by President William Jefferson Clinton or subsequent presidents.”
  • The letter also asked for “any other document that was not declassified by President William Jefferson Clinton or subsequent presidents” and for files on “the operations of the Armed Forces of El Salvador in the Morazán area, including any information on military planning, operational planning, and war planning, and involving any of the military units that I have mentioned,” between 1981 and 1983.
  • The letter specifically solicited information on General José Guillermo García, General Rafael Flores Lima, and 14 others who were charged and remain alive; on Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, Mayor Armando Azmitia, and 14 others who were charged and are now dead; on the municipality of Arambala and the seven sites where the massacre took place; and on the four military units being held responsible: the Atlacatl Battalion, the Third Infantry Brigade of San Miguel, the Fourth Military Detachment in San Francisco Gotera, and the High Command of the Armed Forces.
  • The letter emphasized the need to “move forward with this case in an expeditious manner” and asks Pompeo for a response “within the period of time set forth by the law.”

A journalist for elfaro, a Salvadoran online newspaper, apparently added, “Among the [U.S.] files declassified in 1993, for example, are several diplomatic cables between San Salvador and Washington from January 1981, which make clear that then-U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton was consistently transmitting details about the operation that would ultimately result in the massacre. ‘[I]t is not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against the civilian population of El Mozote. It is certain that the guerrilla forces…did nothing to remove them from the path of battle… Civilians did die during Operation Rescate, but no evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operation zone, nor that the number of civilians killed even remotely approached the number being cited in other reports circulating internationally,’ read an initial cable from Hinton, from January 1981.”

The elfaro journalist also said, “Later, in another communication, [Hinton] . . .  offered a different account of what may have taken place: ‘The estimated population of El Mozote during the massacre was about 300 inhabitants. The Atlacatl Battalion conducted Operation Rescate from December 6 to 17 of 1981. The guerrilla knew of the operation since November 15. The civilians present during the operation and the battles with the guerrilla may have been killed.’” Following Clinton’s declassifications, several agencies have continued providing documents in response to petitions from human rights organizations.

Additional support for U.S. production of such documents comes from an analyst for the U.S. National Security Archive, Kate Doyle, who believes the U.S. has additional relevant documents about the Salvadoran civil war that could and should be declassified.[7]

U.S. Government’s Response to the Judge’s Letter

To date, Secretary Pompeo has not responded to the court’s letter; nor have the three others copied on that letter. The subject came up again at a March 11th Salvadoran court hearing in the case when the judge said, ““This information could be very valuable to us. It could clarify what happened.” A State Department spokesman, however, said, “We do not comment on the Secretary’s correspondence.”

Conclusion

 Given the congressional demand that the U.S. cooperate with the Salvadoran investigation of the El Mozote massacre and the U.S. support of human rights by its recent publication of the  latest annual report about human rights in every country in the world and Secretary Pompeo’s proud creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, there is no excuse for any further delay in providing an affirmative response to the Salvadoran judge’s letter and the requested documents.

This conclusion is buttressed by the following words in the March 11, 2020, State Department’s report about human rights in El Salvador:[8]

  • “In February [2019], in a renewed effort to shield the perpetrators of war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the country’s 1980-92 civil war, a group of influential legislators proposed a draft national reconciliation law. Despite Constitutional Court rulings in 2016 and 2018 that expressly prohibited a broad and unconditional amnesty, the proposed bill would have granted amnesty to several high-level officials who enjoyed immunity from prosecution due to their positions in the recent administration of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren. Victims’ rights groups, other civil society actors, and the international community successfully campaigned against the proposed bill, and President-elect Bukele stated his strong opposition to an amnesty bill and expressed his support for additional consultation with victims. On May 29, [2019] the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the government to immediately suspend consideration of the proposed law. The proposed bill eventually lost support among legislators and failed to reach a floor vote.” (Section 2.E)
  • “Despite a June 2018 Constitutional Court order directing it to release military records related to the El Mozote killings and serious civil war crimes, the Ministry of Defense had not produced the requested documentation as of November 12 [2019]. On November 1, President Bukele stated that he was committed to the truth and that he would release the records. Previously, the Ministry of Defense claimed the El Mozote archive records were destroyed in an accidental warehouse fire. Civil society and victims’ groups continued to press for release of these archives.” (Section 2.E)
  • “On April 23, [2019] the judge in the El Mozote prosecution issued an order adding three new charges against the 16 remaining defendants: Torture, forced disappearance, and forced displacement. He also imposed several provisional measures on the defendants, including a prohibition on leaving the country or contacting victims, and a requirement that the defendants physically appear in court biweekly. The defendants appealed these rulings, which were affirmed by an intermediate appellate court. On February 14, [2019] the Legislative Assembly approved a transitory law establishing mechanisms designed to allow family members to be added to the El Mozote victims’ registry.” (Section 2.E)

=================================

[1] See generally list of posts in the “El Mozote Massacre” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADORThe massacre of children and others at El Mozote, El Salvador Perspectives (Dec. 10, 2017); Posts about El Mozote. El Salvador Perspectives.

[2] Zabiah, El Mozote judge asks the United States for confidential documents on the massacre, elfaro (Mar. 5, 2020) (Zabiah #1).

[3] Zabiah # 1, supra; H. Rep., 116th Congress, 1st Sess., Rep. 116-78, State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2020 (May 20, 2019); H. Rep., Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2020 State and Foreign Operations Funding Bill (May 5, 2019); H. Rep. Comm. on Appropriations. Public Witness Hearing: State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (Mar. 12, 2019).

[4] Letter, State Dep’t to Senator Leahy (enclosing three-page report) (Feb. 5, 2020)(hyperlinked to Zabiah #1, supra).

[5] Zabiah #1, supra; Zabiah, General Bustillo breaks the officers’ script and admits that ‘rudeness’ occurred in El Mozote, elfaro (Jan. 26, 2020); Schwartz, What the El Mozote Massacre Can Teach Us About Trump’s War on the Press, The Intercept (Jan. 28, 2020); El Salvador general admits army carried out El Mozote massacre, Aljazeera (Jan. 25, 2020); Pierce, It’s a Bull Market for Bashing the Press. Under Conservative Governments, It Often Has Been, Esquire (Jan.27, 2020); Renteria, Salvadoran general admits army carried out infamous 1981 massacre, Reuters (Jan. 24, 2020).

[6] Zabiah #1 , supra.

[7] Alvarado, “The attorney general can ask the United States for information about El Mazote,” elfaro (Mar. 23, 2018).

[8] State Dep’t, 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: El Salvador (Mar. 11, 2020).

Spanish Court Upcoming Trial Over 1989 Murders of Salvadoran Jesuit Priests

On June 8, 2020, the Spanish National Court in Madrid will commence a trial over the November 16, 1989, murders in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. The sole defendant will be Inocente Orlando Montano, who at the time was a Colonel and the Vice-Minister of Public Security in that country and who on November 19, 2017, was extradited from the U.S., where he had been living, to Spain to stand trial.[1]

On May 20, 2011, the Spanish court had issued the equivalent of an indictment of 20 Salvadoran military officers, including Montano, for this horrible crime and thereafter requested El Salvador to extradite 15 of them still living in that country to Spain to stand trial, but the Salvadoran courts refused to do so. (As of November 2017, one of the four others had died, two were cooperating with the prosecution and one had been tried, convicted and imprisoned for this crime in El Salvador.) [2]

The law, including universal jurisdiction, facts and circumstances leading up to this trial have been discussed in many previous posts. [3]

The prosecution will be lead by attorneys from The Guernica Centre for International Justice and Spanish co-counsel Oilé & Sesé Abogadas. According to the Centre,

  • “The trial for the murder of the Jesuits and the two women they employed is extremely significant. This trial has the potential to reopen the discussion in Spain about the necessity and importance of an effective universal jurisdiction law. It also supports the ongoing realization that countries like Spain need to ensure that victims of human rights violations can find redress when legal avenues have been foreclosed in other jurisdictions due to restrictive legislation, corrupt judiciaries, impunity, or political opposition. This trial also comes at a time when Salvadoran civil society is struggling to push forward investigations and prosecutions in El Salvador following the Supreme Court’s repeal of the Amnesty Law in 2016, while simultaneously political sectors in El Salvador threaten to enact legislation that once again could shield those most responsible from prosecution and criminal sanctions.”

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[1] Bernabéu, Email: Trial Date Set for the Jesuits Massacre Case (Feb. 17, 2020); Former Salvadoran Military Officer Extradited from U.S. to Spain for Trial in Jesuits Murder Case, dwkcommentaries.com (December 1, 2017).

[2] Update on Status of Extradition of Defendants in Spain’s Criminal Case Regarding the 1989 Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentareies.com (Aug. 22, 2016); Spain Ready to Proceed with Case Over the 1989 Killing of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador, dwkcommenaries.com (Nov. 19, 2017).

[3] See the posts listed in “The Jesuit Priests” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical:  EL SALVADOR.

Pope Francis Approves Beatification of Padre Rutilio Grande

On February 21, Pope Francis approved the beatification of Padre Rutilio Grande, a Salvadoran Jesuit priest who was murdered on March 12, 1977, by a Salvadoran death squad for his advocacy for people who were persecuted by the country’s military and death squads.[1]

His ministry and slaying inspired then Archbishop Oscar Romero (now Saint Romero) to become an  outspoken critic of the country’s military and advocate for El Salvador’s oppressed.[2]

Pope Francis has long expressed his intense admiration for both Grande and Romero. At the entrance to his room at the Vatican hotel where the Pope lives is a piece of cloth with Romero’s blood on it and notes from a catechism teaching Grande delivered. Last year during a visit to Panama, the Pope said,“I was a devotee of Rutilio even before coming to know Romero better. When I was [a priest] in Argentina, his life influenced me, his death touched me. He said what he had to say, but it was his testimony, his martyrdom, that eventually moved Romero. This was the grace.”

The official Vatican News stated the news of this beatification as follows:

  • “The Pope also recognized the martyrdom of the Servants of God Rutilio Grande García, a Jesuit priest, and his 2 lay companions, who were killed in hatred of the faith in El Salvador on March 12, 1977.”
  • “Murdered before the start of the Salvadoran civil war, Father Grande, who was a close friend of fellow Salvadoran and martyr, Saint Oscar Romero, became an icon for human rights in rural Latin America.”
  • “Known for his vigorous defence of poor, the Jesuit priest, an elderly man and a teenager were shot by a right-wing death squad as they were travelling in a car outside the village where he was born.”
  • “The horror that the assassination of Fr. Grande generated led Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador to take up the Jesuit’s mantle as a defender of the poor.  Three years later, Romero would succumb to the assassins’ bullets for his outspoken criticism of the military and work on behalf of El Salvador’s oppressed.”
  • “The decree on the martyrdom of Fr. Grande and his two companions does away with the need for a miracle through their intercession to qualify for beatification, the final step before sainthood, for which a miracle would be required.  The beatification date will be declared at a later date.”

In March 2003, this blogger was in El Salvador and attended a memorial mass for Father Grande at the church in the village of El Paisnal, where he had served as the parish priest, and stopped to pay my respects at Grande’s memorial on the road to the village where he had been murdered.[3]

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[1] Gomes, Indian martyr, Devasahayam, cleared for sainthood, Vatican News  (Feb. 22, 2020); Reuters, Pope Moves Slain Salvadoran Priest, Icon for Poor, Closer to Sainthood, N.Y. Times (Feb. 22, 2020); Assoc. Press, Pope Oks Beatification for Rutilio Grande, Salvadoran Martyr, N.Y. Times (Feb. 22, 2020).

[2] See posts listed in the “ Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: El Salvador.

[3] See Remembering Oscar Romero in Film, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2011) (includes photos of the sanctuary during the memorial mass and of the Grande memorial).

Former Cuban Judge Criticizes Cuban Legal System   

On January 13,  Edel González Jiménez, a former high-ranking Cuban judge who left the island in 2018 and now lives in Peru, told a press conference in Madrid, Spain about the many problems in Cuba’s legal system. Other details were added by Javier Larrondo, the president of Prisoners Defenders and a longtime anti- Castro activist.[1]

González Jiménez’s Comments

Based upon recently released Cuban government secret documents, González said the Cuban government is holding thousands of inmates on dubious charges and has the highest incarceration rate in the world. These records show that Cuba’s prison system holds more than 90,000 prisoners. (Previously the Cuban government had only publicly released the figure once, in 2012, when it claimed that 57,000 people were jailed.)

“What is important is what is behind those numbers,” Mr. González said. “People are in prison for stealing flour, because they are pizza makers and the government has set up a system where the only way to get flour is by buying in the black market from someone who stole it from the state.”

González said that Cuba’s judiciary was often controlled by state security forces that can manufacture cases against political opponents. “What happens, for example, when an issue has a political nature? Well then there is fear [by the judges of losing their jobs]. And that fear . . .can have a negative impact on justice” by “judges, fearful of losing their jobs, go along with evidence that is often flagrantly concocted.”

In ordinary criminal cases, however, judges are independent and free of government influence. González added, “I never received, in 17 years, any interference from either the [Communist Party of Cuba] or the Government.”

“The repression that I am seeing against some of my people is not what I want for my people. I have a lot of fear about the future. Every day Cubans face more fear. I don’t want blood on the streets of Cuba, I don’t want these imprisonments.”

González Jiménez also said that the majority of the Cuban people “unconditionally had accepted the system implemented by Havana more than 60 years ago.” Therefore, “the only thing we are asking for is that in the field of human rights, whether through mercy, it is understood that we have to work on the issue and that we have to take steps forward.” Indeed, “there are countless government officials who have a high sensitivity, who know that these human rights issues are hitting them and are delegitimizing even the country’s own image.” Such officials, however, are held back by their “own internal fear.”

González also raised a proposal for “national internal inclusive dialogue” between the State, opponents, dissidents and social sectors for the regulation of fundamental rights in the Cuban legal system.

Still, Mr. González insisted that there was time for Cuba to resolve its problems internally, and he warned against any outside interference. “We will not allow anybody to impose anything, that should be clear to all countries. Cubans can manage this alone without any kind of interference,” he said. This process “must be “sovereign, free and transparent.”

Mr. González also cautioned against coming to the conclusion that the high number of prisoners in Cuba was proof of a failed society and judiciary. Other countries, he said, had fewer prisoners, but that reflected a high level of “impunity” and failure to prosecute common and violent crime, while Cuba instead “maintains social order.”

Javier Larrondo’s Comments

Another participant in the press conference was Javier Larrondo, who runs an organization called Prisoners Defenders in Madrid, and who publicly announced his call for the Cuban government to respect civil rights.

“This [press conference] is an important blow to the regime,” Mr. Larrondo said.

Mr. Larrondo released Cuban court documents showing that dozens of men received sentences between two and four years in prison for offenses falling broadly under the category of “antisocial” — a phrase that can be applied to people who are unemployed, who do not belong to civic organizations associated with the state, who behave disorderly and harass tourists, and who associate with similarly “antisocial” people. In case after case, the description of the crime is identical, said Larrondo, suggesting that the police cut and pasted the language in the investigative report.

Cuban Prisoners Defenders and Civil Right Defenders reported that more than 90,000 people were in prison on the Island , where about 99% of the citizens tried are found guilty. In addition, Larrondo and Erik Jennische, director for Latin America of Civil Rights Defenders, said that in Cuba there are 37,458 people “in other situations of judicial and police control,” which gives a total of 127,458 convicted. That  is an imposing number of people who, as their “first criminal sanction, are being deprived of liberty, something of extreme rigor, and really unusual in most criminal systems” and who are less likely go obtain early release.

This analysis of the data showed that Cuba is “the first country for (number of) persons deprived of liberty in the world”, taking into account its population of 11 million inhabitants. The Island would be ahead of the U.S., El Salvador and Turkmenistan, whose data has been published by the World Prison Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research.

In the files of prisoners obtained and published by the organizations (with the identity of the condemned hidden) elements are repeated such as lack of labor ties with the so-called mass organizations (controlled by the regime), being “prone to crime” for associating with “similar people,” practicing the “siege of tourism” and altering public order, as arguments to condemn citizens to sentences of up to three years in prison for an alleged “danger index. “This formula, known as “pre-criminal social danger,” frequently has been applied to opponents and other critical citizens of the Government to remove them from the streets.

This accusatory procedure “is frequently used for its speed and efficiency against dissidents, entrepreneurs and any type of person who is considered an urgent danger to the regime, which entails not only preventive detention, but very summary processes that prevent the proper exercise of the defense.”

The previously mentioned documents, according to the New York Times, showed that approximately 92 percent of those accused in the more than 32,000 cases that go to trial in Cuba every year are found guilty. Nearly 4,000 people every year are accused of being “antisocial” or “dangerous,” terms the Cuban government uses to jail people who pose a risk to the status quo, without having a committed a crime.

Conclusion

Last year, Mr. González’s former boss, Rubén Remigio Ferro, president of the Cuban Supreme Court, told the state newspaper, Granma that although the administration of justice on the island is improving, “deficiencies” still exist, such as trial delays, misguided decisions and a lack of professionalism. More recently President Miguel Díaz-Canel told judges while inaugurating the new judicial calendar that the courts must “remain a system that is distinguished first and foremost by its ethics, its transparency and the honest behavior of its members.”

From this blogger’s U.S. perspective, González’s career as a judge and his professed support for the Cuban Revolution should give these criticisms greater weight for Cuban officials. On the other hand, it was surprising there was no mention of at least a partial explanation of Cuban prosecution of individuals for “antisocial” behavior. Cuba knows that the much more powerful U.S. has a long history of hostility towards Cuba and has recruited some Cubans to engage in activities critical of the Cuban regime. Therefore, it arguably could be a matter of self-defense for the regime to arrest at least some of these individuals.

==============================

[1] Robles, Ex-Judge Reveals Secrets of How Cuba Suppresses Dissent, N.Y. times (Jan. 13,   2020); 8,400 Cubans Serve Time for “Pre-Criminal Social Dangerousness,” Civil Rights Defenders (Jan. 13, 2020); In Cuba ‘the fear’ of judges threatens justice, says a lawyer, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 14, 2020); Cuba’s police state exposed:’an important blow to the regime,’ Democracy Digest (Jan. 14, 2020);  González: “Many high-ranking officials of the Cuban government are hurt by repression against dissent,” Archyde (Jan. 13, 2020). González also gave an extensive interview to ABC International, but the English translation is difficult to follow. (Gavińa, Edel González: “Many high-ranking officials of the Cuban government are hurt by repression against dissent,” ABC International (Jan. 14, 2020).)