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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 363 | Octubre 2011
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El Salvador

The Jesuit case is an issue of justice, not of honor

The Jesuit case is neither the only nor even the main crime committed by the Salvadoran State during the armed conflict. But it is symbolic, representing many thousands of horrendous crimes. The Society of Jesus in Central America demands that the truth be learned and justice be done. And it declares itself willing to forgive when that truth and justice become reality.

UCA San Salvador

On May 30, Judge Eloy Velasco of Spain’s National High Court indicted* 20 members of El Salvador’s Armed Forces for the massacre of six Jesuit priests and two lay women in the José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA). The judge’s action and Interpol’s later issuance of a Red Notice [the closest instrument to an international arrest warrant, with a view to extradition] have unleashed such a multitude of commentaries and positions that the UCA feels obliged to issue a statement about these developments and their impact on Salvadoran reality.

Impunity above truth and justice

Salvadoran society has received very biased information about the case. In their coverage, the big media corportions have favored opinions arguing that the case has already been judged, that the statute of limitations is up, that the Amnesty Law prevents any trial, that the Spanish High Court has no competence, that the case would reopen old wounds and that peace takes precedence over justice. The majority of these opinions respond not to reality, but to the defense of particular interests, especially those of people who in the war years decided on and planned massacres of the Salvadoran people—when their duty was actually to defend them—and who have been protected by the State up to now. These positions have helped keep impunity above truth and justice.

The main objection being made to the trial is that the High Court does not have international jurisdiction and that its actions violate national juridical sovereignty. Those who claim this ignore the existence of the principle of universal justice, which El Salvador has accepted. Salvadoran legislation recognizes this principle of universality in article 10 of the Penal Code, according to which El Salvador can promote the trial of those responsible for major human rights violations, even if the crimes happened outside of our borders and regardless of the nationality of the authors. Covered by that same principle, the High Court of Spain has likewise promoted a trial against those individuals who committed a crime against humanity outside of Spanish territory. It is important to bear in mind that the Court would have been unable to initiate this trial if the case had been resolved in El Salvador.

From the highest level

The UCA has neither promoted nor is it part of the process the High Court of Spain is following, as our main interest is for the Salvadoran judicial system to function and be capable of imparting genuine justice. We deeply respect the right of the victims to seek justice where they can be heard and can obtain it. It is in line with that right that El Salvador ‘s institutions are obliged to act in accord with the international treaties it signed, respecting international law and not protecting the accused.

In the indictment, Judge Velasco confirms the theory that there was a conspiracy and instigation to murder eight defenseless noncombatants and the reasonable suspicion that it was part of a military operation ordered and directed at the highest military level, together with civilian collaboration to cover it up. This cannot be circumvented by Salvadoran authorities if they want to respect the rule of law.

These crimes haven’t expired

Nor is it true that this case has already been judged. Only the material perpetrators of the massacre were tried, and in conditions not in the least favorable to establishing justice, which led to several of them being absolved. Even those found guilty received a sentence that does not correspond to the gravity of the crime. Despite that, the UCA and the Society of Jesus agreed at that time to accept the verdict as an act of good will. Nonetheless, Judge Eloy Velasco considered the process to have been fraudulent and, consequently, invalid.

Furthermore, the intellectual authors, who were top-level armed forces authorities at that time, who ordered and planned the massacre, and whom the Truth Commission pointed to as responsible for that horrendous crime, have never had to sit in the dock. There was certainly an attempt to open a trial against them, but the judge of the Third Court of Peace decided it was inappropriate, arguing that the crime was already prescribed. That contravenes article 37 of the Penal Procedures Code, which states that there is no statute of limitations on this type of crime if the right conditions have not existed to promote the penal action.

Amnesty doesn’t cover them

Another argument brandished to avoid justice has been that the Amnesty Law frees the perpetrators of all responsibility. That statement is false, since the Constitutional Bench already ruled on September 26, 2000, that said law does not cover crimes committed by officials of the same government that issued it. According to article 244 of the Constitution, “the violation, infraction or alteration of constitutional dispositions will be especially punished by law, and the civil or penal responsibilities incurred by public officials, whether civilian or military, with that motive, will not permit amnesty, commutation or pardon during the presidential period within which it was committed.”

The wounds are still open

It has further been said that trying the intellectual authors of the massacre in the UCA would involve reopening old wounds. It is both regrettable and absurd that those who claim this are not the victims of the armed conflict, but rather its main actors, those who promoted the war and defended it as the only possible solution to the national conflict. It cannot be forgotten that the ARENA party, then-President Cristiani and the army only accepted dialogue and negotiation as the solution to the conflict once international pressure—especially the cutting off of US military aid—obliged them to do so. Father Ellacuría, to the contrary, was one of the main promoters of the dialogue for peace and of the need to seek a non-military solution to the conflict.

The wounds of the victims and their relatives are still open because Salvadoran society has done nothing to cure and close them. There has been no thought about or search for paths of reconciliation. The amnesty, which was hasty in both time and focus, did not make the culture of impunity disappear, but rather reinforced it.

For centuries, this pernicious culture has made the powerful untouchable and allowed them to continue accumulating wealth and power. The New Testament says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1Timothy 6, 10). Together with greed, impunity is today one of the main roots of the violence, injustice, lies and corruption the country is suffering.

Let them humbly recognize it

We need to recognize without beating around the bush that the war was provoked by the grassroots search for a more just country and the pitiless repression of the oligarchy, government, security corps and death squads. If those who bear the main responsibility were to humbly recognize their crimes and beg forgiveness of the victims and society as a whole, it would be a transcendental step toward initiating a process to close the wounds that are still bleeding in thousands of Salvadoran men and women. Without recognizing the truth about such barbaric acts, it is impossible to move toward a deep and genuine reconciliation.

This is a symbolic case

For that reason, it is also totally false that truth and justice could lead to chaos. To the contrary, treating this as a symbolic case of the innumerable murders of the eighties and nineties, a case with which many of the victims identify as well, establishing the facts and applying justice would help close wounds and find paths of reconciliation. Many victims and relatives of victims have spoken out in this regard. Learning the truth and at least finding guilty those who imposed terror and violence from the State could be truly thyerapeutic for a society in which impunity has prevailed.

We are willing to forgive

The UCA is fully willing to forgive. But following Christian and Catholic tradition, the reconciliation process involves three phases without which pardon is impossible. First it requires truth, then justice; only then can come pardon. In other words, it is necessary to know no only what but also who is being pardoned. Therefore, should the crime be recognized by the justice system, we are willing, in the name of reconciliation, to immediately request a pardon for any sentence applied.

We want to make very clear that what is called the Jesuit Case, in which Julia Elba and her daughter Celina have always been included, is not a question of honor for us. Much less do we assume that it is more important and/or has more priority than other cases of human rights violations committed by the authorities of the Salvadoran State. The UCA wants the truth to be known and justice to be done in all cases in which it is possible, regardless of the ideology or political stripe of their perpetrators. The case of the Jesuits, Julia Elba and Celina is merely the one within our reach, the one corresponding to us as the wounded party, although clearing it up would pave the road to solving many others.

There is no peace without justice

It concerns us that in this debate some voices have opposed peace to justice, or truth to peace. We do not share this position, because the two realities are closely linked: there cannot be peace without justice, and justice leads to peace, as the Holy Scripture fully confirms.

Speaking of restoration after catastrophe—the war was a catastrophe and restoration is what we continue needing after the end of the armed conflict—the prophet Isaiah said: “The fortress will be abandoned, the noisy city deserted; citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever, the delight of donkeys, a pasture for flocks, till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest. Justice will dwell in the desert and righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest” (Isaiah 32, 14-18). God’s people have never seen a contradiction between justice and peace, or between truth and peace.

In the same line, Vatican Council II stated in Gaudium et Spes: “Peace is not merely the absence of war; nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies; nor is it brought about by dictatorship. Instead, it is rightly and appropriately called an enterprise of justice” (GS 78). The social doctrine of the Church takes the same position: Paul VI, in his encyclical Populorum Progressio, recapturing the Council position, stated: “[Peace] is fashioned by efforts directed day after day toward the establishment of the ordered universe willed by God, with a more perfect form of justice among men” (PP 76). We are convinced, then, that peace can only built on justice and love.

We do not accept
the Court’s resolution

The UCA cannot morally accept the resolution of the Supreme Court of Justice plenary, which obliges the military men charged in the case to be freed. It cannot do so because this is a political decision that is not in compliance with the law. It is a decision that disrespects the law in effect in El Salvador and international law, and a decision based on lies. We cannot in any way accept the law being manipulated and persons being excluded from its application.

In addition to discrediting the highest tribunal of the country, this resolution of the Supreme Court of Justice plenary has given carte blanche to impunity and called into question the Court’s own capacity to impart justice.

That the President of the Republic feels satisfied by this resolution of the Court plenary makes us very sad, because that position puts him on the side of those willing to prevent justice from shining through, thus frustrating the hopes for change he promised the country.

If the search for justice is a problem in a society, something is very wrong in that society, as the tribunals are the appropriate place to air injustices. If presenting a lawsuit becomes inadmissible because it opens wounds on the part of the accused, we would be without a judicial system, given that any process is painful for the parties in conflict. Justice is administered in the courts, not the streets, not by shouting and not with bullets. That is why all people who consider themselves victims of injustice should present their case before a judge.

The independent administration of justice is only a threat to its transgressors and those still willing to use force to impose their law. Those who have recently warned of the danger of returning to war are unaware of the desire for peace of the majority of the Salvadoran people and foolishly insist on living in the past.

In this context, it is fitting to recall the words of Monsignor Romero, whose assassination must also still be elucidated. In his homily of December 31, 1977, at the height of the conflict, our archbishop invited all of Salvadoran society to be builders of peace, “a peace built on justice, love and goodness.”

* In Elaine Freedman’s article in the September edition of envío, the translation team incorrectly interpreted that Judge Velasco had convicted, not indicted, these men. We apologize both to Elaine and to our readers.

Statement on the national developments related to the progress of the Jesuit Case in the High Court of Spain. Central American University (UCA), San Salvador, August 30, 2011.

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