Guilty verdict in Salvador
Zacatecoluca, El Salvador
The conviction Thursday of five Salvadorean ex-national guardsmen for the murders of four American church-women in 1980 is an unprecedented event in El Salvador's history.Skip to next paragraph
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Never before have members of the Army or state security forces been tried for the murder of civilians, although more than 38,000 Salvadoreans have died in political violence in the past four years.
The trial and convictions will no doubt strengthen the Reagan administration's contention that human rights abuses in El Salvador are coming under control. They may also shore up international support for the incoming government of President-elect Jose Napoleon Duarte.
But some observers question whether the convicted men got a fair trial. They wonder, too, if there will be an investigation into allegations that Salvadorean officials covered up evidence that high military figures ordered the murders. The convicted men were of low military rank.
(A report ordered by the US State Department, and declassified Thursday, charges that Salvadorean Defense Minister Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova helped to cover up the murders.
(And a March 3 article in the New York Times alleges that the defense minister's cousin Oscar Edgardo Casanova ordered the murder of the churchwomen.)
The investigation and pressure for a trial of the churchwomen's case were generated, as the defense repeatedly pointed out, in large part by the United States government. A recent US congressional amendment withheld $19.4 million in military aid until a verdict in the case was reached.
''The withholding of military aid clearly pushed the Salvadoreans to hold a trial,'' says Michael Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, which represents the families of the victims. ''Before that amendment the authorities here showed little initiative in bringing this case to court,'' he says.
The trial also comes on the heels of Mr. Duarte's visit to Washington this week. Duarte has promised to set up a presidential commission to investigate death squad activity in El Salvador and has suggested that an investigation into 1980 murder of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero be reopened.
The prosecution's case in the trial of the five guardsmen seemed almost to be a referendum on the violence that has gripped El Salvador.
Chief prosecutor Geronimo Castillo appealed to the jury to condemn the murders of the women with convictions and to render convictions to ''stop the abuse of authority within El Salvador.''
Chief defense lawyer Gustavo Napoleon Aldana complained during the trial that there has been ''unfair pressure by US Embassy and Salvadorean government'' on defense lawyers.
''I'm convinced that the men were guilty,'' says Maryknoll sister Helene O'Sullivan, director of the Maryknoll Sisters' Office for Social Concerns, with which the slain women were affiliated, ''and think there was ample evidence against them. . . . But still this trial does not in and of itself mean anything. If it leads to other trials, to a dismantling of the institutionalized system of torture and murder here, then it has succeeded. If it does not, if no more trials like this take place, it will be nothing but a show trial.''