International Criminal Justice: Developments in Spanish Court’s Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests

Over the last several weeks there have been significant developments in El Salvador, the U.S. and Spain regarding the Spanish court’s criminal case against 20 Salvadoran military officers for their alleged involvement in the November 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests. These developments arise out of the May 30, 2011, Spanish court’s issuance of arrest warrants for the 20 defendants on charges of crimes against humanity and state terrorism in planning and carrying out the murders.[1]

After May 30th Spain enlisted the assistance of the International Police Organization or INTERPOL, the world’s largest international police organization, with 188 member countries, to facilitate cross-border police co-operation and to prevent or combat international crime. INTERPOL in turn issued RED NOTICES identifying the 9 of the 20 defendants believed to be living in El Salvador (the Salvadoran Nine) and their indictment by the Spanish court. (Another RED NOTICE is believed to have been issued for a defendant believed to be living in the U.S.) Such RED NOTICES typically are treated as requests for provisional arrests of the subjects of the notices so that the formal process of requests for their extradition to Spain, in this case, can be made.[2]

El Salvador Developments

In El Salvador, in late July a lawyer for the Nine requested the National Civilian Police (PNC) to not execute the Red Notices on the ground that the crime already had been prosecuted by Salvadoran courts.[3] In addition, on August 7th the Nine turned themselves in to a military base near San Salvador, presumably because of a belief that as former military officers they would have some protection there. That same day, however, the country’s Minister of Defense turned them over to civilian authorities who kept the Nine in custody at one of the country’s military facilities.[4]

Thereafter, the Nine filed habeas corpus petitions with the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court. On August 24th the Chamber rejected the petitions on the ground that there was a request for their extradition to Spain.[5]

Minutes later on August 24th, however, the 15-member Salvadoran Supreme Court decided, 10 to 2, that the RED NOTICES for the Nine only served to locate people accused of crimes by another country. The Notices did not authorize arrests. That could happen only if there were a formal extradition request, and no such request had been received by El Salvador. If Spain in fact made an extradition request, the court would consider it.[6]

The reaction to the decision within El Salvador was predictable; those who supported the military were happy; those who wanted to see justice for the Jesuits were disappointed.[7]

In response to the Salvadoran Supreme Court ruling, a Spanish court official has said that Spain cannot issue a formal extradition request to El Salvador for the Nine because Spain has not been notified that they are under arrest. The Spanish court, therefore, has asked El Salvador to clarify the legal status of the Nine after the Salvadoran court’s August 24th ruling. [8]

Does this leave the issue at an impasse? El Salvador will not authorize an arrest because there is no extradition request, and Spain will not or cannot issue extradition requests because there are no arrests?

Meanwhile in El Salvador, the controversial Decree 743 that required the Constitutional Chamber of its Supreme Court to act unanimously has been repealed.[9]

U.S. Developments

On or about August 19th defendant Montano was arrested in Virginia on charges of lying to U.S. immigration officials in applying for Temporary Protected Status in the U.S.  On August 23rd he made an appearance at a federal court in Massachusetts, where he had been residing. The next day he was released on a $50,000 bond and confinement to his sister’s house with electronic monitoring. Apparently there has not yet been a RED NOTICE for him.[10]

Earlier (in July) Senators John Kerry, Tom Harkin, Patrick Leahy and Barbara Boxer jointly signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requesting the U.S. to cooperate fully with the Spanish court in this case. The response from an Assistant Secretary of State said the U.S. was monitoring the case and would give any Spanish request for assistance the appropriate consideration.[11]

Spain Developments

In Spain, lawyers for the Nine apparently have decided that offense is the best defense. They have filed charges in the Spanish court alleging that the Spanish judge, Valasco Nunez, acted illegally in the May 31st arrest orders for the 20 Salvadoran former military officers. The basis for the charge is the prior Salvadoran criminal case regarding the murders of the Jesuits, the Salvadoran amnesty law and its statute of limitations barring any such charges at this time. The attorneys also are considering a charge of defamation against the Spanish judge.[12]

Conclusion

As this discussion indicates, the story is far from over. Further developments in this case are expected in all three countries.


[1]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests (May 31, 2011); Post: International Criminal Justice: The Spanish Court’s Criminal Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 15, 2011).

[2]  INTERPOL, http://www.interpol.int/default.asp; Arauz, Dada & Lemus, Interpol arrest warrants processed 10 Jesuit Salvadoran military case, el Faro (July 29, 2011), http://www.elfaro.net (Google English translation). In addition to the RED NOTICES for the nine officers believed to be living in El Salvador, another was issued for Rene Emilio Ponce, who died in May 2011. (Id.)

[3]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Criminal Prosecution of the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 8, 2011).

[4] Center for Justice & Accountability, Press Release: Salvadoran High Commanders Responsible for Jesuit Massacre in 1989 Under Custody in El Salvador (Aug. 10, 2011); Tim’s El Salvador Blog, Officers indicted for Jesuit murders surrender (Aug. 8, 2011),______     ;

[5] Gonzalez & Perez, Supreme Court in the event benefited the Jesuit military, diario colatino (Aug. 25, 2011) (Google English translation).

[6] Id.; Assoc. Press, Salvadoran Supreme Court refuses to detain men charged in 1989 killings of Jesuit priests, Wash. Post (Aug. 24, 2011); Released in the Salvador to military courts in Spain by death of Jesuits, lapagina.com (Aug. 25, 2011) (Google English translation).

[7]  General Zapeda,”national sovereignty has prevailed and has restored peace to the country, lapagina (Aug. 25, 2011) (Zapeda is one of the defendants) (Google English translation); Perez, Munguia Payes, “an episode closes, whatever comes later, lapagina (Aug. 25, 2011)(Payes is Defense Minister) (Google English translation); Calderon, Rodolfo Cardenal, “The decision was somewhat expected, because,” lapagina (Aug. 25, 2011)(Cardenal is former UCA vice chancellor) (Google English translation); Guzman, Siegfried Reyes: “El Salvador has a large debt tp truth and justice, lapagina (Aug. 25, 2011)(Reyes is President of the Legislative Assembly) (Google English translation).

[8] Sainz, Spain seeks El Salvador clarification on suspects, Miami Herald (Aug. 25, 2011); Assoc. Press, Spain Seeks El Salvador Clarification on Suspects, N.Y. Times (Aug. 25, 2011).

[9] Tomorrow Decree 743 will be history, diariocolatino (July 28, 2011). See Post: El Salvador’s Current Controversy over Its General Amnesty Law and Supreme Court (June 16, 2011).

[10] Arsenault, War crime suspect found in Everett [Massachusetts], Boston Globe (Aug. 17, 2011); Assoc. Press, Salvadoran accused in Jesuit deaths held in Mass., Boston Globe (Aug. 23, 2011); Assoc. Press, Suspect in Jesuit deaths out on immigration charge (Aug. 24, 2011); Arsenault, War crimes suspect in house arrest in Saugus [Massachusetts], Boston Globe (Aug. 25, 2011); Aragon, Military accused of slaughter in the U.S. Jesuit was arrested while fleeing to Mexico, elfaro (Aug. 25, 2011) (Google English translation).

[11] Arsenault, War crime suspect found in Everett [Massachusetts], Boston Globe (Aug. 17, 2011);

[12]  Lemus, Military sue Spanish judge to reverse the Jesuit case, elfaro (July 31, 2011) (Google English translation); Aguilar, Military accused of slaughter in Spain by Jesuits are delivered to the army, elfaronet (Aug. 8, 2011). See Post: International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Criminal Case Regarding the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 8, 2011); Post: International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case (June 11, 2011).

 

 

El Salvador’s Current Controversy over Its General Amnesty Law and Supreme Court

As indicated in a prior post, the issue of the constitutionality under Salvadoran law of the General Amnesty Law has not gone away. Indeed, that issue and a new law regarding its Supreme Court (Decree 743) have precipitated a major, still-unresolved controversy in the country.[1]

As an outsider, I have found it difficult to understand and analyze this controversy. I, therefore, will try to summarize what has been happening. I cannot predict how this will turn out, but will conclude with my observations and questions.

The first step in this still unfolding drama was the May 30, 2011, decision by a Spanish court to issue criminal arrest warrants for 20 Salvadoran military officers and soldiers for their alleged participation in the November 1989 murder of the six Jesuit priests.[2]

The next step was the adoption without debate three days later (June 2, 2011) of Decree 743 by the votes of the conservative political party legislators of the Salvadoran legislature (the National Assembly) with abstentions from all but two of the FMLN legislators and by the signing of the law the next day (June 3, 2011) by  President Funes of the FMLN party. Decree 743 requires through July 2012 the five-member Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court to act unanimously in order to declare a law unconstitutional.[3]

Decree 743 and the highly unusual and hasty manner in which it was adopted have caused major citizen protests in the capitol city and debate in the media and various organs of the State.[4]

Much debate and speculation has centered on why the Decree was proposed and adopted by the legislators from the conservative political parties. Foremost, as former President Cristiani, who is now the President of the ARENA political party, has admitted, was concern that the Constitutional Chamber would invalidate the General Amnesty Law. Was there worry that a decision invalidating that amnesty law would facilitate a Salvadoran court’s enforcing the Spanish arrest warrants? The conservative political parties, it is true, also disliked some of the recent decisions by the four moderate or progressive members of the Chamber that have invalidated various laws. Was that the main reason? If so, why did the Decree have to be adopted so quickly without debate? The “sunset” provision of Decree 743 is also seen as an implicit recognition that it is aimed at the four progressive members of the Chamber in that their current three-year terms expire in July 2012.

So too there is debate and speculation as to why President Funes from the FMLN political party quickly supported the Decree when the FMLN itself did not. Was there pressure by the U.S., which does not want El Salvador to withdraw from the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and to stop using the U.S. Dollar as the country’s currency and, therefore, feared the Constitutional Chamber’s invalidating those laws? Was something not yet known promised Funes by the conservative political parties in exchange for his supporting the Decree? Some speculate that Funes did so to gain support in the National Assembly for a moderate legislative agenda. True?

The third step in this drama was the Constitutional Chamber’s decision in a case on June 6th (only three days after the adoption of Decree 743) that decided, by four of the five magistrates, that the country’s Budget Act 2011 was unconstitutional in two respects and that the just-adopted Decree 743 itself was unconstitutional. Decree 743 was held to violate the principle of separation of powers and to interfere with the constitutional powers of the Chamber; the decree, according to the court, was also adopted by the legislature in an unconstitutional manner.[5]

Yet another wrinkle was added to this controversy by the announcement on June 8th by Cristiani, as President of the ARENA political party. He said that ARENA had supported Decree 743 on June 2nd because of rumors that the Chamber was about to declare the General Amnesty Law unconstitutional.  On June 8th (only six days after the legislature’s adoption of the Decree), however, Cristiani said that the information about the Chamber’s impending invalidation of the General Amnesty Law was erroneous and that instead the Chamber had made a “clear demonstration” that it did not intend to invalidate the amnesty. Therefore, Cristiani said, ARENA would be introducing a bill to repeal that Decree. This about-face, he said, was to end the conflict over the Decree and to promote dialogue among the three branches of government.[6]

This ARENA reversal itself has created more controversy and speculation. Why did it change its mind in only six days? Did it really want to end the conflict over the Decree and promote dialogue? Did it receive secret and improper leaks from the Chamber that it would not invalidate the General Amnesty Law? Was there in fact no pending case regarding the Amnesty Law? Was it discovery that the Chamber seven years ago had ruled that the Amnesty Law did not apply to the murders of the Jesuits because no administration may grant amnesty to itself?[7] Was it due to the Chamber’s June 6th decision holding that the Decree was unconstitutional and by respected attorneys publicly taking the same position?[8]

However, later on the very same day as the ARENA announcement of changing its position (June 8th), an attorney filed two cases with the Chamber challenging the constitutionality of the General Amnesty Law and El Salvador’s being a party to CAFTA. Will this cause ARENA to change its mind again?

The FMLN positions in this controversy are even more baffling. On June 2nd all but two of the FMLN legislators abstained on voting on Decree 743, saying it was a blow to democracy. The June 8th ARENA reversal of position on the Decree, therefore, presumably would be welcomed by the FMLN. The FMLN, however, also reversed its position. Its spokesman now said that the Decree had “no reverse gear” and that the Chamber’s June 6th invalidation of the Decree was a danger for the other institutions of the government. Why was the FMLN party taking these positions?[9]

President Funes from the FMLN appears to be the only participant who has had a consistent position. When he signed the Decree, he has said he did so because it was constitutional, it would prevent a looming conflict between the legislature and the judiciary and it would not obstruct the operations of the Chamber. Was this the real reason? After the ARENA reversal of position, he still supported the Decree and said that ARENA’s change appeared to reflect an improper agreement with the Chamber not to declare the amnesty unconstitutional and an improper attempt to influence the Chamber and cast doubt on the independence of some judges.[10] (The next day both ARENA and the President of the Supreme Court denied the existence of any agreement regarding the amnesty law between the Constitutional Chamber and ARENA or Cristiani.)[11]

As an outsider without full knowledge of all the facts, all I can do is speculate and raise questions.

The timing and manner of the adoption of Decree 743 and the comments by Cristiani suggest to me that the Decree is most directly connected with the Spanish court’s issuance of the indictment and warrants.

First, I had thought that the validity or invalidity of the General Amnesty Law had become a theoretical issue. That Law grants amnesty for certain crimes committed before January 1, 1992 (the end of the Civil War) or over 19 years ago. But for that time period, El Salvador had a 10-year statute of limitations for such crimes that in December 2000 was held to bar a new Salvadoran criminal case over the murders of the Jesuits without regard to the General Amnesty Law.[12] Although there is a basis under international law for challenging the validity of such a short statute of limitations for such horrendous crimes,[13] that appeared to me to be unlikely to succeed in El Salvador.

Second, the Spanish indictment was issued on May 30th and gave the defendants, the majority of whom are still Salvadoran residents, only 10 days (until June 9th) to surrender themselves to the Spanish court before additional steps would be taken to secure their arrests.[14] On June 2d (only three days after the issuance of the indictment) the National Assembly without debate adopted Decree 743, and the next day (June 3) it was signed by President Funes and enacted into law. This suggests to me a desire by the conservative political parties (and the President) to have Decree 743 in place before the Spanish court would take steps to have the Salvadoran courts issue arrest warrants for the defendants and thereby give those defendants a possible legal basis (the General Amnesty Law) to resist the arrest warrants. Is this what happened?

Third, Cristiani was a subject of the original criminal complaint in Spain and a potential additional indicted defendant in the Spanish case.[15] Thus, he has a profound personal interest in having Salvadoran legal defenses to any future attempt by the Spanish court to have him arrested in his home country. Just this month he has been the principal spokesman for ARENA regarding its original support of Decree 743 and tying it to trying to ensure that the General Amnesty Law is not invalidated. Was this at least part of Cristiani and ARENA’s motivation for their original support of Decree 743?

Fourth, it is much more difficult to understand the reasons why President Funes immediately signed the Decree when his political party (the FMLN) was opposed. His rationale as stated on June 10th is not persuasive to me as an outsider. I, therefore, wonder if President Funes had received threats that the Salvadoran military (or a paramilitary organization) would intervene to prevent the removal of these officers from the country? Was the perceived elimination of a threatened invalidation of the General Amnesty Law by requiring unanimity in the Constitutional Chamber seen as a way to prevent the extradition of the military men through the courts and thus avoid a military intervention or coup?

Finally, is it possible that all of this controversy is unnecessary? Could the Constitutional Chamber hold the General Amnesty Law constitutional, but like the U.S. federal courts conclude it is not applicable to proceedings in other countries?[16]


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

[2]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests (May 31, 2011); Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court’s Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 15, 2011).

[3] Marinero, Funes sanciona reformas para que fallos de amparos e inconstitucionalides sean por decision unanime, (June 3, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com; ?Donde se gesto el decreto que le puso el freno legal a la Sala de lo Constitucional?, (June 4, 2011),www.lapagina.com.sv; Voices from El Salvador, Institutional Coup in El Salvador (June 4, 2011), http://voiceselsalvador.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/institutional-coup-in-el-salvador; Voices from El Salvador, Salvadorans Protest the Government’s Actions Against Constitutional Court (June 6,2011), http://voiceselsalvador.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/salvadorans-protest-the-governments-actions-against-constitutional-court; Tim’s El Salvador Blog, Broad opposition to Decree 743 (June 8, 2011),   http://luterano.blogspot.com/2011/06/broad-opposition-to-decree-743.html.

[4] Id.; Ortiz, Attorney Oscar Luna condemns the decree 743 (June 13, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv (English translation; Luna is El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman); Discussions in the Constitutional Court in El Salvador (June 13, 2011), http://www.centralamericadata.com (Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce and Industry calls for repeal of Decree 743); Voices on the Border, The Debate Over Decree 743 Continues (June 14, 2011).

[5] Arauz, Constitutional Chamber hereby declared the decree that would tie the hands, elfaro (June 6, 2011), http://www.elfaro.com.sv; Merinero, Guerra de poderes en El Salvador: La Corte Suprema declara inapplicable el articulo que exige unanimidad en fallos de la Sala de lo Constitucional, (June 6, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv.

[6] Huete, Henriquez & Cabrera, ARENA perida derogatoria de decreto 743, La Prensa Grafica (June 8, 2011), http://www.laprensagrafica.com; Arauz, ARENA retract the decree against FMLN urges Chamber and fulfill, elfaro (June 8, 2011).; Perez, ARENA se retracta y promote pedir la derogacion del decreto 743, (June 8, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv; Otto & Marinero, ARENA contra la pared: ya hay dos recursos de inconstitucionalidad contra la Ley de Amnistia y el TLC (June 8, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv.

[7]  I have not seen this case myself, but it is referenced in one of the articles about the current controversy. I solicit information about this case.

[8] See n.6.

[9] E.g., FMLN reiterated it would not support repeal of Decree 743 (June 14, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv.

[10] Guzman, Funes: “Aqui no ha habido ningun compadre hablado entre el presidente y la derecha, (June 6, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv; Guzman, Funes: La confesion publica de ARENA es una injerencia inacceptable en el Organo Judicial, (June 10, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv.

[11] Voices on the Border, The Debate Over Decree 743 Continues (June 11, 2011).

[12]  No New Trial Set in Deaths of 6 Jesuits, Miami Herald, Dec. 14, 2000.

[13]   E.g., Barrios Altos v. Peru, 2001 Inter-Am. Ct. H.R. (Ser. C) No. 75, ¶ 41 (Mar. 14, 2001); Convention on the Non-Applicabilty of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, Art. I (war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide); European Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitation to Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes, Art. 1 (crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and “any other violation of a rule or custom of international law which may hereafter be established and which the Contracting Party concerned considers . . . as being of a comparable nature to [the previous crimes]”); Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons, Art. VII; Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Art. 29 (genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity). Moreover, El Salvador apparently has a new statute that has no time limit for criminal prosecutions for torture, genocide, war crimes and certain other crimes occurring after sometime in 1996. (Ruth A. Kok, Statutory Limitations in International Criminal Law at 45 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press 2007).)

[14] CJA, Spanish National Court Indictments and Arrest Warrants (May 30, 2011)(in Spanish), http://www.cja.org/downloads/JesuitsArrestWarrants.pdf;  CJA, Update: Spanish Judge Issues Indictments and Arrest Warrants in Spanish Jesuits Massacre Case (May 31, 2011), http://www.cja.org/article.php?id=1004.

[15]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court’s Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 15, 2011).

[16] See Post: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law in U.S. Federal Court Cases (June 14, 2011).