The kidnapping of Salvadorean President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's daughter and the secret negotiations with left-wing rebels to obtain her release in exchange for the liberation of captured guerrillas puts the spotlight on the more than 500 political prisoners being held in El Salvador. Americo Araujo is one of the 34 prisoners that the rebels are demanding in exchange for the release of In'es Guadalupe Duarte Dur'an.
Mr. Araujo, second in command of the Salvadorean Communist Party, is considered the highest-ranking political prisoner in Mariona Prison, which is situated on the outskirts of the capital.
Mariona is representative of Salvadorean jails: Political prisoners are kept in a separate wing.
A committee of inmates effectively manages the political prisoners' wing. These inmates are granted privileges that others do not receive. They say that they have won these privileges by six hunger strikes. The most recent strike lasted 54 days.
Last spring's strike had its intended effect. Prisoners may now keep their cells open until evening lock-up time. Although beans and undercooked tortillas are still the daily fare, the hunger strikes produced ``tough meat'' and macaroni several times a week. Family members may bring food on visiting days.
The majority of El Salvador's political prisoners are not urban professionals but rather poor young rural people whom the Salvadorean Army suspects of involvement in ``subversive'' activities.
The United States-backed Salvadorean government has been fighting a war with the left-wing guerrillas for five years.
One human rights investigator notes, ``Virtually anybody can be picked up on the merest suspicion of involvement in `subversive activities' and held incommunicado for 15 days, during which time an extrajudicial confession will be extracted or simply invented. Based on that supposed confession, defendants can be held for months or years in Mariona or Ilopango Prison without knowing where their case stands or having any way to force its resolution.''
Whatever its privations, life in Mariona prison is an improvement over the treatment most political prisoners are said to suffer during their initial phase of incarceration. Sleep deprivation is reported to be common. Araujo, who has been detained for the past nine weeks, says he was allowed only three hours of sleep during his first week of interrogation.
He says that he was kept seated, and blindfolded, until ready to drop with exhaustion. The interrogators then made him stand long enough to awaken him, he says, and then continued interrogations. By the third day he says that he was hallucinating constantly. He was given food, and sometimes water. But many prisoners reportedly are given neither.
Formerly, many prisoners would have been killed by the security forces during interrogation, human rights observers and prisoners say.
Araujo says that changes have taken place. There has been a shift from physical torture and executions to psychological torture, he says. But human rights observers and political prisoners allege that physical torture continues.
Once the prisoners arrive in Mariona, the beatings and mistreatment stop, Araujo says. But most of the prisoners can't afford a lawyer and their cases go nowhere. They stay in jail until the government lets them out. This generally lasts from several months to several years. No real rule seems to exist to determine how long a prisoner remains incarcerated, human right observers say.
Political prisoners fall into several categories:
Guerrilla commanders or top political leaders.
Peasant farmers who collaborate with the guerrillas, giving them food, providing intelligence, or perhaps just belonging to a local militia unit.
Those who sympathize with the guerrillas, but who have not become involved. These constitute the majority of political prisoners, the political prisoner's committee says.
``The prisoners are suspect because of where they live or who they know,'' says a human rights observer. ``Somebody might have fingered them as `subversives' because they don't like them or because they're scared themselves.''
While the Duarte government has done little to change the legal procedures of arrest and incarceration, prisoners are less likely to be killed now, human rights observers say. The security forces now tend to comply with the law, handing over prisoners to the military judges after two weeks, say human rights observers.
``What has changed is that the security forces now acknowledge when they have people in custody,'' says a human rights observer. ``When they acknowledge that, the person won't be killed. That's a big improvement.''