Church, rights groups protest US training of Salvador's police

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The resumed training of El Salvador's police forces by United States military advisers has brought protests from the Roman Catholic Church and human rights groups here. These groups oppose US training because the Salvadorean police have been traditionally implicated in human rights abuses. They say that although the incidence of killings and torture has declined since a peak five years ago, the forces still commit human rights violations.

US and Salvadorean military officials admit that human rights violations continue in the security forces, but they say that the overall human rights situation has greatly improved and that US training will further contribute to that trend of improvement. Military officials warn that the growing threat of urban terrorism requires US antiterrorist training.

Human rights groups -- Americas Watch and Amnesty International -- as well as a human rights report issued by the Organization of American States say that the terrorist threat has been exaggerated and that, although the police forces have improved their record of human rights abuses, the continuing abuses do not merit the reward of US training.

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``It's a mistake to think that training will improve the human rights record of police forces,'' says Aryeh Neier, co-chairman of Americas Watch.

One US military source concedes, ``I'm not here to say that there is no torture that has gone on here recently, but if you compare the situation last fall to the situation two years ago when we were trying to figure out where the heads were for the bodies that were being found around town. Now we're talking about complaints of sleep deprivation.''

Sleep deprivation of prisoners is common in all the security forces, say human rights groups. Americas Watch, Tutela Legal, the local Catholic Church's human rights monitoring group, and those who claim to have suffered torture, say torture does exist and attribute it to the Treasury Police. Tutela Legal says that right-wing death squad activity doubled from 1984 to 1985.

The Catholic Church has publicly denounced the use of torture, commonly used to extract confessions, by the security forces.

US aid to foreign police forces was officially stopped in 1974 by Congress after revelations that the US Agency for International Devlopment-funded Public Safety Program had taught interrogation techniques which incorporated torture to Latin American police forces.

But the Reagan administration has tried to renew aid to the Salvadorean police forces. After the killing of four US Marines in June 1985, the administration proposed a $54 million package of police aid to Central America for fiscal year 1986. Congress allowed the administration to reallocate $4.5 million of military assistance funds toward police training and purchase of transportation and communication equipment.

The training began in mid-February with four US military men training approximately 10 men from each of the three branches of the security forces. These will form a training cadre that will in turn teach the rest, says the military source.

Trade-union leaders and members of human rights organizations fear that the training is actually aimed at combating the expected increase in union activity. The unions are dissatisfied with the government austerity plan which has sent prices of many basic goods skyrocketing.

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