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.
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.''
The trial was marked from the beginning by a disparity between the preparation of the defense and prosecution counsel that became evident as the proceedings progressed.
The US Embassy's legal counsel on criminal cases coordinated the prosecution's five-hour presentation, according to US legal officials here.
The three defense attorneys were public defenders who will not be paid for their work. The defense attorneys, who occupied only an hour on the docket, seemed unfamiliar with the nuances of the case and appear to have done little preparation. Their presentation was widely regarded as rambling and disjointed.
The five defendants - Colindres Aleman, Daniel Canales Ramirez, Francisco Orlando Contreras Recinos, Carlos Juaquin Contreras Palacios, and Jose Roberto Moreno Canjura - lowered their heads during the proceedings, refusing to look at the prosecution attorneys.
Prosecutor Castillo acknowledged the presence of some 40 members of the international press and told jurors they were being called to stand before the international community and ''reestablish a respect for law and order in El Salvador.'' He reminded the court of the thousands of political murders committed in El Salvador, saying it was a ''disgrace that they went uninvestigated.''
The first defense attorney summed up his presentation by referring the jury to the Dec. 2 daily report written by one of the defendants, Sub-Sgt. Colindes Aleman, who was in charge of the unit, to his superiors. Aleman's report did not mention the murders, the lawyer said.
Even the US Embassy's lawyer was taken aback, shaking his head and saying, ''horrible, a horrible defense.''
One clear slip, however, came from the final defense attorney, who had been on the case a mere three months and never met his clients.
''If they are guilty,'' he said,''they must be pardoned because to pardon is part of humanity. The Bible calls us to pardon.''
The five defendants were handcuffed and escorted out of the courtroom to waiting vehicles when the court adjourned while the jury deliberated the verdict.
One of the defendants turned to reporters as he left the building and shouted , ''El Salvador.''
The verdict came at 4 a.m. to a group of weary court officials, international press, and assorted relatives and visitors. Juror Blanca Alicia Buendia Flores timidly read the guilty verdict as television lights bathed her and her four colleagues in glaring white lights. The five defendants, as required by Salvadorean law, were not present when the verdict was read. They will be informed of the verdict by Judge Bernardo Rauda Murcia and sentenced within 20 days.
''We hope this will be an example,'' said Judge Rauda in his office after the trial, the pinks and blues of the dawn sky edged outside his window. ''We hope this trial will bring us a return to respect for the law.'' Monitor writer Julia Malone reports from Washington:
Although reaction from US lawmakers to the guilty verdicts has been restrained, El Salvador can measure the benefit of the trial in terms of more US aid.
Within hours of the convictions, the House of Representatives voted to give El Salvador $62 million in emergency military aid. The verdict also automatically releases $20 million in assistance promised once the trial was completed.