Salvadoran Verdict Fails to Dispel Doubts

SALVADORANS' long-held conviction that their country's Armed Forces are untouchable by the law has hardly been altered by the first conviction of a high-ranking officer in a human-rights case.Although Salvadorans say the historic Sept. 28 convictions of Col. Guillermo Benavides and a lieutenant for their part in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two women are a positive step, the jury's "not guilty" verdict on seven other soldiers accused in the case left many unconvinced anything has changed. When asked about the case, most people are noncommittal. One man says that, "If the system worked we think all the people implicated in the case would have been convicted." He preferred not to give his name. There is little expectation among those interviewed that a new chapter is about to open in the judicial history of El Salvador. "The prime objective of the Jesuits' case was to establish a symbol of a new era for El Salvador," says political analyst Antonio Canas, "to reestablish the credibility of the legal institutions of the country." That objective has only been partly fulfilled, he says. While the Benavides conviction gives a favorable impression of the beginnings of change, Mr. Canas says that absolving the seven soldiers, among them the previously alleged trigger-men who carried out Benavides's orders, could send a message to soldiers that they will not be held responsible for carrying out orders, whatever they might be. And he warns that even the impact of convictions may be short lived. "Everyone knows that only the enormous international pressure given in this case made it possible to get as far as it did," he says. "No one is thinking that this case is now a rule which is going to be fulfilled from now on. Everyone is waiting to see what happens." Government officials, however, were buoyed by the results. "It's a landmark case," says Vice-Minister of the Presidency Ernesto Altschul. "Every type of criticism was laid on this case. Nobody thought we were investigating. Nobody thought we would prosecute, and nobody thought there would be a jury installed." The case, he says, showed that El Salvador has a functioning judicial system, and that "it may not be perfect, but it did produce something." Still, the judge who presided over the case since January 1990 is planning to flee the country after sentencing the two officers, according to the Washington Post. Judge Ricardo Zamora was reported planning, as soon as possible, to leave for Europe. In the wake of the court decision, Jesuit priests and the United States Congress's Task Force on El Salvador asserted that the planners or "intellectual authors" of the killings remained in the high ranks of the military. Mr. Altschul responds that the government is prepared to pursue the case further as evidence is produced. ve yet to see a solid piece of evidence to follow up." The irony of such comments is not lost on Jim McGovern, a member of the staff of US Rep. Joe Moakley (D) of Massachusetts, who leads the US congressional task force. Mr. McGovern says part of the reason for the investigative failure in the case is that the investigative units looking for the murderers inside the military are themselves part of the Armed Forces. International pressure should be kept up, he says. "If this case is going to have any long-term meaning, it is going to be in the fact that the investigation continues and that it explores the issue of who actually masterminded this crime," McGovern says. "It should also look into the issue of who controlled the investigation from day one." The first break in the case came in January 1990 when a special commission created to investigate the murders revealed the names of nine soldiers accused in the case, including Colonel Benavides, then head of the Salvadoran military academy. As the investigations wore on, the Jesuits claimed the military had hermetically sealed the case. The judge found crucial log books had been recently burned. Some soldiers appeared to perjure themselves when testifying, and the judge had difficulty bringing others to testify. Many who testified remembered nothing. Further weakening the case, the accused soldiers recanted earlier statements, saying they had been forced to sign the documents without knowing their contents. The verdict comes on the heels of an accord signed by the Salvadoran government and leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) leaders aiming at bringing the two sides closer to a cease-fire. But Saturday's verdict, which left "impunity alive and well according to one foreign diplomat, is bound to make some rebels think twice about trusting their lives, after a cease-fire, to a system that appears to have so little power to control the military.

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