Salvadoran Attorney General Requests Reopening of Jesuit Priests Murder Case

On December 5 El Salvador’s Attorney General advised a Salvadoran court that the case over the 1989 murder of the Jesuit priests should be reopened. This follows a similar request on November 27 by the Institute for Human Rights of the University of Central America (UCA), where the priests lived and worked.[1]

The defendants in the case are the alleged intellectual authors of the crime: former president, Alfredo Cristiani; the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, René Emilio Ponce (now deceased); ex-commander of the Air Force, Juan Rafael Bustillo; Deputy Defense Minister, Juan Orlando Zepeda; Public Security Vice Minister, Inocente Orlando Montano; the former commander of the First Infantry Brigade, Francisco Elena Fuentes; and the former Minister of Defense, Rafael Humberto Larios.

Another former Salvadoran military officer and intellectual author of the crime, Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, earlier was convicted of the crime in El Salvador and now is imprisoned in that country.

Montano, as reported in previous posts,[2] is now in Spain facing the same charges in a Spanish court. Apparently he is asserting the following defenses: (a) he had no knowledge of the orders to kill the priests, (b) he was not part of the military chain of command; and (c) at the time of the assassination of the Jesuits, former President Cristiani was present in the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces. At least one of these defenses is supported by an attorney for the Salvadoran military, who is asserting that Montano had no command over military personnel since as deputy minister he only could give  orders to members of the military corps security.[3]

In response, the prosecution in Spain is arguing that Montano was present at the Salvadoran Military General Staff meetings when the orders were given to commit the murders and that as Deputy Minister of Defense and Public Security he was empowered to command the security forces (National Police, National Guard and Treasury Police) while as a Colonel he had command over the military units.

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[1] Labrador, Prosecutor requests the reopening of the Jesuits case in El Salvador, El Faro (Dec, 7, 2017)

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

[3] Burgos, Montano’s defense sins innocent, El Faro (Dec. 5, 2017).

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).