“This development is a very important step towards accountability for the families of those killed and the people of El Salvador,” said Almudena Bernabeu, an attorney for the Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco-based human rights and advocacy group. She was referring to a decision by Eloy Velasco, a judge of the Spanish National Court, to formally investigate the case.
Among those facing possible war crimes’ charges are former military officers René Emilio Ponce, a one-time head of the Salvadoran armed forces‚ joint chiefs of staff, and Rafael Humberto Larios, a former Salvadoran defense minister.
The judge is basing the investigation on a “universal jurisdiction” for crimes against humanity, a legal concept accepted in Spain. His January 13 decision to seek an investigation came after the Center for Justice and Accountability and the Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos en España (the Spanish Association for Human Rights) in November asked the Spanish courts to take the case.
Two of the 14 Salvadoran officers were tried and convicted of murder in 1991 but were released following a national amnesty law that some criticized as being too lenient towards those who committed crimes during the 12-year civil war, in which as many as 75,000 civilians perished.
In the case of the six Jesuits, “the victims’ families and the Salvadoran people have gone without justice for the massacre for nearly two decades,” Bernabeu said.
The November 1989 murders at the Central American University in the capital of San Salvador caused an international uproar during the conflict, notable for the role of leftist clergy and others influenced by the tenets of liberation theology. Some of those clergy and laity were targeted by death squads linked to the then U.S.-backed Salvadoran government.
In a statement, CJA officials called the massacre “one of the great religious crimes of the 20th century and a major tipping point” triggering the end of the Salvadoran civil war. “The judge’s prompt action underscores the importance of this case not only for the people of El Salvador but for the cause of human rights accountability around the globe,” Pamela Merchant, CJA director, said following the judge’s decision.
Five Spanish Jesuit priests were killed in the massacre, as were a Salvadoran Jesuit priest, the priests’ Salvadoran housekeeper and her daughter.
Current Salvadoran President Antonio Saca has said the case is likely to reopen old wounds in his country.