Echoes of Justice in El Salvador after US Deportation Sentences

4/30/2015

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On April 8, 2015, a US immigration court deported former Salvadoran general Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova after he was found guilty of committing serious human rights abuses in his position as defense ministers during El Salvador’s civil war, a conflict which embroiled the country between 1979-1992. Vides Casanova was forcibly removed from the US and is back in El Salvador; it’s still unclear whether he’ll face justice or be protected under existing amnesty laws.

Also on April 8, in a separate case, US courts ordered Salvadoran Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano Morales was ordered to Spain to face charges in the 1989 killings of five Spanish Jesuit priests in San Salvador.

Both General Vides Casanova and Colonel Montano Morales had been living in the US for decades; the recent rulings against them were a clear signal that perpetrators of atrocities abroad would not be shielded by the US.

In this ICTJ podcast, ICTJ Director of Communications Refik Hodzic interviews Patty Blum, Senior Legal Advisor at the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), who has worked closely with Salvadoran victims in US courts to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes committed during the war.

In her discussion with Hodzic, Blum describes the progression and challenges of the multi-year processes against the two former Salvadoran generals, and explains why the decisions mark an important victory for human rights and justice in the US and beyond.

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The forcible removal of Vides Casanova from the United States is significant, Patty Blum says, because he was not removed because of a lie on his application for permanent residence, but for the human rights abuses over which he presided for close to a decade.

Blum was deeply involved in the civil suit filed against Vides Casanova and his co-conspirator Gen. José Guillermo García, which was initially filed in 1999. Three plaintiffs in the case were all victims of torture during the war. In 2002, a jury in West Palm Beach, Florida found them responsible for the torture, and awarded over $54 million to the victims. Proceedings against the two former generals then began in US immigration courts in 2009.

The United States does not have universal criminal jurisdiction, but its laws allow for foreign citizens to pursue civil suits against perpetrators of human rights violations outside of the US.

This provision, Blum explains is called the Alien Tort Statute, which was first created as a part of the first US Judiciary act of 1789. Recent development of the statute includes torture victim protection, which provides another basis for people to seek redress for harm suffered. “A lot of people refer to it as a sort of US civil universal jurisdiction,” says Blum.

She says the Vides Casanova case is monumentally significant: not only for the United States in its policies of dealing with human rights abusers, but for El Salvador, where perpetrators of atrocities continue to be shielded from the eyes of the law.

“The country had a very broad blanket amnesty that was passed within five days of the release of the Truth Commission report on El Salvador,” says Blum. “Everything was kind of shut down very quickly. And that shutting down was not just the responsibility of criminal prosecution, but it was also silencing the whole question of what the conflict had been about.”

Today, El Salvador’s Supreme Court has so far upheld the amnesty law. However, while criminal accountability is important, Blum argues that other forms of accountability can still take hold in the country, for example, memorialization and reparations efforts like the creation of the Peace Wall with the names of victims, the apologies by the FMLN government for the massacre of El Mozote, or the upcoming beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed by a death squad in 1980 due to his strong denunciation of human rights violations in the country.


PHOTO: Nerys Gonzalez, who said she had been kidnapped by soldiers in the 1980's, holds pictures of people who disappeared during El Salvador's civil war as she joins protesters outside the airport before former General Eugenio Vides Casanova arrives from the U.S. in San Salvador, El Salvador, Wednesday, April 8, 2015. The ex-general linked to human rights abuses during El Salvador's civil war in the 1980's was deported by the U.S. and flown to his home country, where officials said he faces no charges or restrictions on his movements. (Salvador Melendez/AP Photo)