El Salvador: Spanish Judge to Investigate Murders of Jesuit Priests

  (IPS) – A Spanish judge’s decision to investigate 14 Salvadoran military officers for the 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador is a "sign of hope against impunity," according to lawyers and activists.

In his resolution, which was seen by IPS, Madrid Judge Eloy Velasco stated that under the principle of universal jurisdiction he is competent to investigate 14 members of the Salvadoran army for their alleged participation in the Nov. 16, 1989 murder of the six priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter.

The judge’s decision was in response to a lawsuit filed in November by two human rights groups, the Spanish Association for Human Rights (APDHE) and the San Francisco-based Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA).

Almudena Bernabeú, a Spanish lawyer with the CJA, told IPS from San Francisco that she was very pleased that "the judge concurred that the officers can be tried for crimes against humanity and terrorism."

David Morales, a lawyer at the Foundation for Studies on the Application of Rights (FESPAD), told IPS that "this is encouraging news in the effort to put an end to impunity in this country."

Morales has been a plaintiff in several human rights cases, including one brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) against the Salvadoran state for the March 1980 assassination of the Catholic archbishop of San Salvador Óscar Romero, who was killed while celebrating mass.

Romero was murdered by a death squad on the orders of Roberto D’Aubuisson, the late founder of the ruling right-wing Nationalist Republican Party (ARENA), according to the United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission created by the peace agreement that put an end to the 1980-1992 civil war.

Morales said the legal investigation into the Jesuits’ murders — one of the most notorious cases of human rights abuses committed during the armed conflict — will confirm that the 14 officers are guilty of the crime, as has "already been demonstrated," and will show that Salvadoran courts have refused to bring them to trial.

The IACHR has accepted two complaints on the same case filed by the Jesuits (Society of Jesus).

In the Nov. 13 lawsuit they filed in Spain, the APDHE and CJA also accused former president Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994) of covering up the murders of the priests and the two women.

Morales said at the time that the case is "illustrative of what happened in El Salvador, and has an invaluable historical dimension in the context of the search for justice and reparations for the victims."

Although Velasco did not accept the charge against Cristiani because covering up a crime against humanity does not fall under the principle of universal jurisdiction — which permits prosecution of the worst atrocities no matter where they were committed — grounds for investigating the former president could emerge during the judge’s probe, experts say.

In the early hours of Nov. 16, 1989, members of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl counterinsurgency battalion raided the San Salvador campus of the Jesuit University of Central America (UCA), killing six priests — five of whom were Spanish citizens — their housekeeper Elba Ramos and her daughter Celia Marisela Ramos.

The killings were committed during a military offensive in San Salvador by the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which is now a political party and the country’s leading opposition force.

Immediately after the murders, the Cristiani administration and the armed forces accused the FMLN, but later acknowledged army involvement.

Two of the nine members of the army accused of the crime, Yushi René Mendoza and Guillermo Benavides, were convicted in 1991. However, they were released only two years later, following approval of the amnesty law decreed by Cristiani in 1993, which is seen by Salvadoran and international human rights groups as an obstacle to justice.

Some 75,000 people — most of them civilians — were killed and 7,000 forcibly disappeared during El Salvador’s civil war, mainly by government troops and far-right paramilitaries.

President Antonio Saca — who like Cristiani is a member of ARENA, which has governed El Salvador since 1989 — said in November that the lawsuit would "reopen wounds of the past," and that he thought very highly of Cristiani.

Armando Pérez, the head of the Committee of Relatives of Victims of Human Rights Violations (CODEFAM), told IPS that the judge’s decision is a sign of the effectiveness of the Spanish justice system, and "represents an advance in the fight for justice," by contrast with the severe shortcomings of the Salvadoran justice system, which he said is caught up in party mentalities and loyalties.

Human rights groups and legal experts say the amnesty law and the lack of will on the part of prosecutors and judges have stood in the way of bringing those responsible for crimes against humanity to justice.

In the case of the Jesuits’ murders, the CJA chose to file the action in a Madrid court because Spain and El Salvador have an extradition agreement, and because Spain’s judges admit the principle of universal jurisdiction, already applied by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón to secure the 1998 arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), who died in 2006.