Salvadoran Archbishop Shutters Legal Office: Closure Blocks Access to Thousands of Documents on Human Rights Crimes

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SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR * A firestorm of protest and dismay has greeted the abrupt closing of the Catholic church's legal aid office that has since the 1980s provided staff, administrative support, and documentation to victims of the most egregious human rights violations of El Salvador's civil war.

Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar of San Salvador, the nation's capital, ordered the closure Sept. 30 without notifying staff beforehand. The closure puts at risk the repository of testimony, documentation and photographs for some 50,000 crimes, including massacres, political killings and cases of torture and disappearances during the civil war that ended in 1994.

"We had no idea this was going to happen," said former director Ovidio Mauricio. "We do not know how we can continue to represent the victims as they have no resources and neither do we without Tutela Legal," he said, using the office's Spanish name.

Archbishop Oscar Romero founded Tutela Legal to give legal assistance to poor Salvadorans. Documentation of Romero's assassination in 1980 are among the records in the now-closed archive, as is the documentation of the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at Jose Simeon Canas Central American University in San Salvador.

The closure comes in the wake of a Supreme Court decision to consider vacating a postwar Amnesty Law that has since 1993 protected government officials, military officers and guerrilla leaders from prosecution for acts committed during the 1980-92 civil war.

Military officials, the political right and Escobar have spoken out against eliminating the law. The archbishop has called it "imperfect," but suggested to local press it may be serving "to prevent the fall anew into a spiral of demands that cannot be fulfilled."

On the morning of Sept. 30, a lawyer. a psychologist and others of 13-member staff of Tutela Legal arrived as usual at their offices in a building owned by the archdiocese to find door locks changed and security officers previously unknown to them guarding the premises.

A representative of the archbishop informed staff members, some with decades of service, that they were fired as of that moment and ordered them to clean out personal belongings and leave.

Victims protested that the legal advocates with whom they had worked for years could not be summarily sacked, left with long-standing commitments to cases they pledged to honor but without resources--let alone accumulated files--to do so.

Days after it shuttered Tutela Legal, the archdiocese appeared to change its narrative and announced the closure was part of an unremarkable reorganization process. Days later, the story changed again: The archbishop said he had closed the office because of malfeasance, but could not make details public.

The country's human rights ombudsman, David Morales, is a lawyer who was fired from Tutela Legal in 2007 by Escobar's predecessor, Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle, when Morales insisted on taking Romero's case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C.

Morales has said that if he finds the archives threatened, he will consider legal action against the archdiocese.

El Salvador's secretary of culture of the presidency, Ana Magdalena Granadino, announced that her office would declare Tutela Legal's archives a national treasure, of unique value for understanding the history of the country so that their "preservation and protection is of vital importance as much for the Catholic church as for the Salvadoran people," local media reported Oct. …