El Salvador to try soldiers for killing US missionaries

In bringing to trial six Salvadoran National Guardsmen charged in the late 1980 deaths of four United States churchwomen, the Salvadoran government may improve its tarnished image abroad.

However, there will be questions about why it took more than a year to put the six guardsmen on trial.

Their names were known to authorities within several months of the crime. FBI agents, cooperating with Salvadoran authorities, identified the suspects in a variety of tests, but did not disclose their names as that was beyond the FBI mandate.

The US subsequently put considerable pressure on the Salvadoran government to bring the case to speedy trial. But pressure from Washington seemed to have little effect. As the Salvadoran civil war ebbed and flowed during 1981, the case of the missionaries seemed to languish.

It appeared, for a time at least, that the deaths of the three Roman Catholic nuns and one Catholic lay missionary might simply be allowed to go unpunished. Within the Salvadoran military there was stiff opposition to the whole investigation as well as to any attempt to punish those suspected in the killings.

Nevertheless, the military-civilian government led by President Jose Napoleon Duarte continued to promise that the guilty would be punished.

In recent weeks, however, as the Salvadoran government's battlefield situation worsened and as the international press issued reports of alleged government massacres, Washington pressed anew for fresh evidence of progress on the human-rights front.

It is not clear whether this latest pressure led to this week's announcement that the six national guardsmen would be tried for the murders.

What is clear is that the announcement gives some credence to the Reagan administration's certification to Congress last week that the Salvadoran government's human-right posture is improving.

Soon after the murders of the four women on Dec. 2, 1980, the US government suspended new military and economic aid to El Salvador and sent a fact-finding mission headed by William D. Rogers, a former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, to El Salvador to investigate the killings. This response, taking place after Ronald Reagan had been elected, was a joint Carter-Reagan effort -- not simply one by Jimmy Carter, then a lame-duck president.

Later the US sent the FBI team with sophisticated equipment and technical skill to the scene to help in the probe of the killings.

Human-rights groups in the US were active in protesting the incident. The families of the slain women called on Washington to do something about bringing those responsible for the killings to trial.

This week the families were informed by the State Department that something was being done -- namely that the six accused National Guardsmen had been dismissed from the military, a first step in bringing them to trial since under Salvadoran military law, men on active duty are exempt from civilian court trial.

Formal announcement of trial is being made by the Salvadoran government this week. Although the trial will prove legally complicated under Salvadoran law, US officials are hopeful that it will finally solve the brutal 1980 killings of Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, Maura Clark, and missionary Jean Donovan.

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