Thursday, July 14, 2016

At last justice, for Romero?


#BlessedRomero #MartyrOfMercy
El Salvador's Supreme Court declared the 1993 post war amnesty law preventing the prosecution of war crimes committed during El Salvador's civil war unconstitutional.  The ruling opens the door for possible prosecutions of crimes against humanity including that of Blessed Oscar Romero, the best known of the over 75,000 civilians killed between 1980 and 1992. [More at Tim’s El Salvador Blog.]
A press statement issued along with the ruling makes approving reference to a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission Report analyzing numerous crimes, and states that the statute of limitations has not run on many of those cases, “as well as others of equal or greater seriousness and importance, which could be attributed to both parties (the Armed Forces and the guerillas), and which are subject to investigation and prosecution by the competent authorities.”  Accordingly, among the cases which now could be pursued is the March 24, 1980 assassination of Romero, which the Truth Commission called “an illustrative case.”

The Romero case is also “illustrative” of how the Amnesty Law formalized an official policy not to investigate.
In the hours and days following the assassination [more on the crime], Judge Atilio Ramirez Amaya, the Criminal Judge of the Fourth Criminal Court in San Salvador, attempted to carry out a serious investigation of the crime, but was actively thwarted by police and other government officials.  Judge Ramirez was surprised that police officials did not call him the night of the crime, as policy required, so he reported to the hospital where Romero’s body was being examined.  He was surprised not to find any police presence when he arrived there.  He asked his secretary to call the police.  They never came.
Following the autopsy, the Judge had his secretary once again phone the police to come secure evidence from the hospital, including bullet fragments found in Romero.  They did not come.
Late in the night, the Judge called the police to join him at the crime scene to search for and collect evidence.  They did not respond.  Judge Ramirez was forced to carry the sensitive material to his home in order to preserve it.  The police did not show up at the crime scene until four days after the assassination, and they did not collect evidence there, nor provide any to the investigating judge.  Judge Ramirez’ conclusions were not incorporated into the official report and the autopsy x-rays “disappeared” from the official file.
On March 25, Judge Ramirez started receiving anonymous death threats.  On March 27, two men arrived at his house, gained entry into the home and attempted to shoot Judge Ramirez with an automatic weapon.  They shot his housekeeper.  Judge Ramirez repelled the attack with a shot gun.  They left in a getaway car, while unknown suspects walked on the roof of his house.  Neighbors observed police cars parked nearby, ignoring the scene.
The next day, Judge Ramirez resigned his position and left El Salvador.  The Truth Commission concluded that “there is sufficient evidence that the failed assassination attempt against [Judge Ramirez] was a deliberate attempt to deter investigation of the case.”
In May 1980, the Salvadoran Army raided a farmhouse where Roberto D’Aubuisson and several of his associates were meeting.  They arrested D’Aubuisson, and confiscated documents planning the Romero assassination.  But the detained were soon released after the military intervened with the military-civilian junta then ruling the country.

Various other furtive attempts to prosecute D’Aubuisson and his cronies were similarly thwarted during the 1980s.  In 1987, the U.S. even captured one of the conspirators and was ready to extradite him for prosecution, but Salvadoran authorities dropped the charges and the U.S. was forced to release him. The enactment of the Amnesty Law in 1993, days after the Truth Commission named D’Aubuisson as the mastermind of the Romero assassination, frustrated all further efforts to hold him responsible.
Back in 1980, the Archdiocesan Legal Aid Office was searched by the National Police in July of that year and files relating to the Office’s investigation of the assassination were removed, never to be seen again.  The lawyers on the staff who were working on the case received death threats and were forced to flee the country.
Notably, one of those lawyers was Florentin Melendez, who now serves on the Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court and was one of the magistrates who signed the unconstitutionality decree.
Perhaps now that the landscape has changed so dramatically, there may finally be justice for the victims, including Blessed Romero.  In a pastoral letter published earlier this year, the current Archbishop of San Salvador called for exactly that.

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