Partial Justice in Salvador Never before Have Salvadoran Soldiers Been Convicted of Human Rights Crimes; but US Policymakers Shouldn't Overstate the Progress

By Michael Posner. Michael Posner is executive director of the Lawyers Committee murder trial . | The Christian Science Monitor, October 8, 1991 | Go to article overview

Partial Justice in Salvador Never before Have Salvadoran Soldiers Been Convicted of Human Rights Crimes; but US Policymakers Shouldn't Overstate the Progress


Michael Posner. Michael Posner is executive director of the Lawyers Committee murder trial ., The Christian Science Monitor


THE verdict in the trial in El Salvador of soldiers accused of murdering six Jesuit educators, their housekeeper, and her daughter raises more questions than it answers. Both in El Salvador and in the United States, the verdict is being used to make strikingly different and apparently contradictory points. These contradictions reflect the delicate and confusing state of Salvadoran politics.

The conviction of two military officers for killing civilians is unprecedented in El Salvador. As such, the verdict is an important break in the Army's longstanding impunity from prosecution. For a colonel and a lieutenant to be tried and convicted of murder, the Army had to make a political decision to allow the trial to occur. The impact of that decision was amplified by the highly public nature of the proceedings. The entire three-day trial was broadcast live on Salvadoran television.

For the case to have lasting importance, however, President Alfredo Cristiani must make a very difficult decision: whether to pursue those who ordered the murders. Virtually everyone in El Salvador believes that officers senior to Colonel Guillermo Benavides ordered the murder of the priests. The priests, leaders of the nation's most prominent university, were killed in the center of San Salvador, in an operation involving more than 50 soldiers. A colonel who heads the military academy would not undertake such an action on his own initiative.

Even with a civilian government in El Salvador, the Army continues to dominate civilians, including those in the courts. The Salvadoran Army will actively resist any investigation that goes higher. International attention must now focus on this aspect of the case. Success in prosecuting the order-givers would demonstrate the government's commitment to purge the armed forces of human rights criminals. Significantly, this issue remains the fundamental point of contention in the United Nations-sponsored peace negotiations.

What effect the trial in the Jesuit case will have on the administration of justice and the prosecution of other human rights crimes is a significant concern. The Salvadoran military has treated the case as an aberration. The military continues to resist efforts to investigate other human rights abuses, and there have been many.

Ultimately, the Army's impunity will be broken only when soldiers assume that they will be prosecuted whenever they abuse civilians - not just in cases that draw public attention. Unfortunately, the acquittal of seven of the nine defendants, including four whose extrajudicial confessions identified them as the triggermen, fell far short of holding the military accountable for civilian murder.

AS a lawyer working closely with the Jesuits on this case, I see few aspects of either the investigation or trial that are likely to serve as a model for future trials. …

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