By Edgardo Ayala (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Inter Press Service
August 30, 2011
The nine soldiers accused in the assasination of six Catholic priests and two of their colleagues in 1989 in El Salvador, will be tried in absentia by Spanish courts after the Supreme Court of that Central American country refused to hold them for extradition.
Thus a crack appears to shed light on facts that the Salvadoran institutions still refuse to face around that slaughter and other as yet unpunished crimes committed in the war of the armed forces and paramilitary groups against leftist guerrillas from 1980 to 1992, which left 70,000 people dead and more than 8,000 disappeared.
"The case will go forward in Spain, with or without the military men sitting on the bench; they will have to be tried in absentia," Benjamin Cuellar, director of the Human Rights Institute of the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, told IPS.
"If convicted in absentia, the military men would be fugitives from international justice and would be in a 21,000 square kilometer prison," said Cuellar, referring to the territorial expanse of El Salvador.
The nine uniformed men, now retired from military service, had taken refuge on the 7th of this month at an army base east of San Salvador in a move that avoided the formal arrest being orchestrated that same day by Interpol (international police) from France, at the request of Judge Eloy Velasco of the Audiencia Nacional of Spain.
While there was never a formal arrest of the accused, the Salvadoran government of Mauricio Funes said at the time that the military men were under orders of a local judge, implying that they were detained, pending the process running its course, ie, receiving an extradition request from Spain.
So, arguing that no such request had been received prior to the alleged detention, the Court ordered the release of the accused, though at the same time, it acknowledged that they were never in jail.
"For us, they aren't really regaining freedom, because they were never deprived of it; they were in a unique situation," said Judge Ulises de Dios Guzmán, a member of the Court, in an attempt to clarify this blatant contradiction.
In 2009, a Spanish court began the case to clarify the massacre of the Jesuits in El Salvador from a lawsuit filed a year earlier by the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco and the Human Rights Association of Spain.
The maneuvre of the military men, who avoided arrest based on a non-existent legal concept, "military protection", as their team of lawyers called it, showed how weak the Salvadoran state institutions are when trying to prosecute those responsible for human rights violations during the civil war.
"The ruling shows that impunity remains institutionalized in the country, it continues to dominate through clean slates and new accounts," Ima Guirola of the Institute of Women's Studies told IPS.
In 1989, during a guerrilla offensive that put the government of right-winger Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994) in check, an army command entered the campus of the Universidad Centroamericana Jose Simeon Cañas (UCA) at night and killed six members of the Society of Jesus who were there, including the rector, the Spaniard Ignacio Ellacuría.
In addition to Ellacuría, the Spanish priests Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, Amando Lopez and Juan Ramon Moreno, the Salvadoran bishop Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, and an employee, Elba Ramos, and her 16 year-old daughter Celina, were shot by the Atlacatl Battalion, which had been trained in the United States in counterinsurgency.
The political right and the military leadership of the time regarded the Jesuits, especially Ellacuría, as ideologues of the guerrillas for their advocacy of liberation theology, a progressive trend in the Latin American Catholic Church that had its peak in the 60s and 70s and championed social and political change in its option for the poor.
Most of those accused in the multiple murders, committed with the consent of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, occupied command positions in the army during the civil war, including General Rafael Humberto Larios, then Minister of Defense, and Juan Rafael Bustillo, chief of the Air Force.
The list is completed by colonels Francisco Elena Fuentes and Juan Orlando Zepeda, lieutenants José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra and Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, second sergeants Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas and Tomás Zarpate Castillo, and soldier Mariano Amaya Grimaldi.
Another 10 Salvadoran officers who are on Velasco's list of extraditables could also be liable to detention orders in the coming months, although it remains to be seen how the Spanish judge will react based on the ruling of the Salvadoran court.
The arrest warrant included another former defense minister Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce, who died last May.
Retired colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, former security minister during the conflict, and also included in Velasco's expanded list, was arrested Tuesday the 23rd in the United States on charges of falsifying immigration information which had allowed him to live smoothly in that country, said a local newspaper, The Boston Herald.
Judge Velasco is carrying out the trial under the concept of universal justice, which has its roots in the Nuremberg Tribunal that tried and convicted Nazi war criminals at the end of World War II (1939-1945).
Among antecedents of attempts at justice in El Salvador for crimes committed during the civil war is the 1991 trial of nine men in uniform precisely for the murder of the Jesuits, two of whom were convicted but later released thanks to the amnesty law that was enacted in 1993 and strongly criticized by activists and jurists.
The Spanish judge thinks that the trial was already quite flawed and, therefore, that a new one is required to at last shed light on what really happened in 1989 at the Universidad Centroamericana.
In 2000, the Salvadoran Supreme Court refused to reopen the investigation into the case, as requested by the Society of Jesus. For this, the magistrates argued that the ten years set for keeping a trial open had already passed and, moreover, that the amnesty law protected the accused military men.
"I believe that impunity has been a prevalent feature for years in El Salvador and still is," Ramon Villalta, of Iniciativa Social para la Democracia, told IPS.
On the other hand, retired General Ernesto Vargas, a signer of the 1992 Peace Agreement that ended the civil war, welcomed the ruling because, he said, if the Court had given the green light to proceed against the military men, it would have blown up the treaty, which is based on the amnesty law.
"There could be no peace agreement without amnesty; it's the price we had to pay for peace," he argued.