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Issue Date:  September 17, 2004

Damages awarded in Romero case


More than 24 years after the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, a federal court judge in Fresno, Calif., ruled Sept. 3 that former Salvadoran Air Force Capt. Alvaro Rafael Saravia was legally responsible for the assassination and ordered him to pay $10 million in damages.

The courtroom erupted into applause, according to press reports, when Judge Oliver Wanger said, “The damages are of a magnitude that is hardly describable.” The judge ordered Saravia to pay $2.5 million to compensate the plaintiff and $7.5 million as punishment to deter others. “The sole remedy the law can provide is money,” he said.

The civil suit was filed by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability with assistance from the law firm Heller Ehrman White and McAuliffe. The plaintiff, Romero’s sibling, was identified only as “J. Doe” because of safety concerns. Saravia, who had most recently lived in Modesto, Calif., appears to have gone underground. He was tried in absentia.

Saravia has long been considered a major player in the plot to kill Romero. In 1987 he was arrested in Florida and held for 14 months when a Salvadoran judge asked that he be extradited. But those efforts were thwarted in 1988 by a Salvadoran Supreme Court ruling against extradition. Saravia was released from U.S. federal prison on bond and has since lived in California and Florida. A chorus of human rights organizations has denounced his presence in the United States.

An amnesty law passed in 1993, when El Salvador’s legislative assembly was still controlled by those who had created law through death squads, prevented terror victims from seeking justice in the Salvadoran courts.

This U.S. case was argued under two federal statutes: the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act, and the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act, which allow suits against foreign nationals in the United States for summary killings and torture committed abroad.

Matthew Eisenbrandt, litigation director for the Center for Justice and Accountability, told NCR that the Sept. 3 ruling found Saravia guilty of “extrajudicial killing,” or in other words, state-sponsored murder. Saravia was also found guilty of “a crime against humanity.” Eisenbrandt said even though the killing of Romero was an individual murder, it was “was part of a widespread, systematic attack on the civilian population of El Salvador.”

Juan Carlos Cristales, executive director of El Rescate, a Los Angeles organization that defends Central Americans’ rights, said he believed that Romero’s assassination was one of the great atrocities of recent history. He said it is particularly offensive that those responsible for such crimes have been allowed to “live openly and with impunity in the United States, when so many genuine refugees were kicked out.”

Cristales told NCR that the U.S. judgment is “a good step forward,” but foresees difficulty in finding Saravia. Cristales said the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Homeland Security department should aid efforts to locate and deport people like Saravia because “they’re terrorists.”

Stanford Political Science Professor Terry Karl, who was an expert witness at the trial, testified that El Salvador’s civil war was “framed by the murder of priests.” She said Romero’s murder was one of the catalysts that pushed the country into war and that the Nov. 16, 1989, murder of six Jesuit priests was one of the major catalysts that brought about the peace agreement. After the court victory she told NCR, “The priests in El Salvador were targets.” She said this was because Romero and the six Jesuits were bridges between the left and the right. She said, “In both cases the priests were not only considered voices for the poor but also bridges between different factions. The people who killed them were opposed to any kind of negotiated settlement.”

Romero was gunned down in March 1980 as he celebrated Mass in a crowded chapel. In the 12-year civil war that followed, at least 75,000 people were killed. More than 1 million Salvadoran refugees were sent into exile.

The Fresno trial included emotional testimony that described the positive impact of Romero’s teachings and the chaos that erupted upon his murder. Saravia and his boss Roberto D’Aubuisson were closely linked to right-wing death squads that terrorized the Salvadoran countryside for years.

In a statement Karl told of her friend, Fr. Ignacio Martin-Baro, one of the slain Jesuits. Martin-Baro had told her that the worst thing was not the murder of Romero, but said Romero “would die over and over again if the truth were buried with him.” After the trial, Karl said the victory helped bring forth more of the truth. Still, she said, “there’s a lot of loss in this story, a lot of loss.”

Melissa Jones is a freelance writer living in Las Flores, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004

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