In Surprise Move, Court Accepts Suit Against Amnesty Law
On Friday, September 20, the Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court accepted a suit against the country’s 20-year old Amnesty Law. The Chamber’s move marks another important step in a series of recent challenges to the controversial law, but could conceal ulterior motives tied to the country's upcoming presidential elections. The case was brought by the leaders of the Jesuit Central American University’s Human Rights Institute (IDHUCA), the progressive legal NGO FESPAD (Foundation for the Study of the Application of the Law), and the feminist NGO Cemujer, among others. It charges that the law conflicts with the country's constitutional mandate to uphold international treaties, such as the American Convention on Human Rights, over domestic law. The suit further asserts that the Amnesty Law violates the constitutionally guaranteed right to life and challenges the legality of law's ratification by the Legislative Assembly in 1993. In a 2000 ruling, the Chamber upheld the Amnesty Law, but bucking the judicial trend of resolute defense of the Law the magistrates empowered individual judges to decide its applicability, saying that the Law could not prevent the prosecution of major human rights violations. The Chamber also ruled that no current government could bestow amnesty upon itself, and thus all crimes committed during the 1989-1994 administration of ARENA President Alfredo Cristiani were except from the Law. Nevertheless, the 2000 Supreme Court ruling has not been enacted for a single case to date, and the social movement and Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party's demands to repeal the Amnesty Law and bring war criminals to justice continued. Finally, a December 2012 ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) prompted the Attorney General’s office to announce just a few weeks ago the opening of an investigation into the 1981 El Mozote massacre.While a repeal of the Amnesty Law would mark an unequivocal victory for justice in El Salvador more than 30 years in the making, the electoral timing of the decision raises major questions concerning the magistrates' agenda. The Chamber is notoriously loyal to the ARENA party – an allegiance most recently demonstrated in an electoral ruling – and ARENA has fought tooth and nail to maintain the Law for decades. As major corruption scandals surround Quijano and Saca – the right wing presidential hopefuls of ARENA and UNITY, respectively — the Salvadoran elite and their allies are desperate to damage the reputation of the FMLN candidate in the public eye. With the 2014 elections on the horizon, concerns remain that the right wing will use debate around the Law to attack FMLN presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén with unfounded claims from his past as an FMLN commander and combatant during the civil war.