New Opportunities for Justice at Home, Uncertain Future for International Cases

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The July decision by the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court to reverse the 1993 Amnesty Law, has removed a major barrier to investigating and prosecuting Civil War-era crimes and human rights abuses. Families of victims are not hesitating to take advantage of the new legal opening. Meanwhile, other cases that had been opened outside of El Salvador are now facing new roadblocks by the country’s Supreme Court.

On August 19th, the families of victims of the El Mozote massacre became the first to submit an official request to the Attorney General to demand an investigation into the 1981 ruthless murder of an estimated 1,000 civilian men, women, and children. The families are represented by lawyers from the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and the “Maria Julia Hernandez” Legal Aid Office (Tutela Legal, which was re-founded as an independent NGO after local Catholic leadership closed the office originally opened by Monsignor Oscar Romero).

The El Mozote case is emblematic because it is among the largest massacres recorded in Latin America in the 20th century and was one of the first cases in which initial investigations and prosecution were thwarted due to the implementation of the Amnesty Law. Upon submitting the request that the case be re-opened, Dorila Márquez, President of the Association for the Promotion of Human Rights of El Mozote, said, “For 35 years we have fought tirelessly, and we hope that authorities will do their job once and for all and permit us to know the truth about what happened as well as obtain justice in light of the atrocities that we experienced.”

Many also wondered how the reversal of the Amnesty Law would impact another notorious case, the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America (UCA). Families of the murdered priests had initiated a case in Spain under the country’s doctrine of Universal Jurisdiction, given the impossibility of justice in El Salvador under the Amnesty Law, and earlier this year a Spanish judge requested the extradition of 19 former military officers charged in the case. Four had been detained and were awaiting a Supreme Court decision on their extradition.

But following the July reversal of the Amnesty law, the Supreme Court ruled to deny Spain’s request to extradite military personnel implicated in the 1989 murder of the Jesuit priests for the second time. In light of the decision not to extradite, the Spanish lawyer representing the families of the Jesuit priests Almudena Bernabéu responded that if the Supreme Court is unwilling to abide by Spain’s extradition request they will then be required by international law to try the criminals nationally. “I hope that the Court shares this reasoning,” stated Bernabéu, “that they are obliged by the principles of international “aut dedere aut judicare” which means that if you do not extradite, you must prosecute; at this time there are no impediments against trying these persons.”

Yet on August 25th, the Supreme Court unanimously voted to free three of the four detained officers: Ramiro Ávalos Vargas, Tomas Zárpate Castillo, and Angel Pérez Vásquez. Magistrates reasoned that extraditing them or charging and trying them in El Salvador would violate their protection from double jeopardy since the three had been tried and absolved of charges in El Salvador in a highly questioned trial in 1992. Meanwhile, the fourth and highest-ranking officer that had been detained and awaiting extradition, Coronel Guillermo Benavides, will return to prison to finish the 30-year sentence he received in a 1991 trial; the 1993 passage of the Amnesty Law resulted in his release after serving a mere 14 months of his sentence.

Following the initial celebrations of the Constitutional Chamber’s decision to overturn the 1993 Amnesty Law, activists are ready to see whether El Salvador’s justice system – its Attorney General, prosecutors, and judges – are prepared act against the impunity that has reigned since 1993. The El Mozote case and the future of charges against both the material and intellectual authors of the Jesuit Massacre are proving to be the first test. A recent statement issued by a coalition of human rights and anti-impunity groups read: “We are conscious that the idea of impunity has become rooted in the operators of the justice system and in a large part of Salvadoran society, which is why allowing justice to move forward will be a challenge for everyone. We are encouraged by the opportunity to contribute to healing wounds that have been open for so long and the possibility of improving the justice system that should respond to the most horrendous crimes of the past and not allow them to be repeated today in El Salvador.”

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