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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Our Bastard on Trial 

Tired of rehashing 35-year-old war stories from the Mekong Delta? Then by all means let's fast-forward to 1980:
From the rear of the church there is the sound of a single shot. The priest crumples to the floor of the chapel fatally wounded, blood seeping from a small hole in his chest and soaking his vestments. Outside the small chapel, a bearded man armed with a .223 high-velocity weapon, is seen in the back seat of a red, four-door Volkswagen which then drives away.

The priest was Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador and an outspoken champion of the poor, and he was assassinated by right-wing paramilitaries, on 24 March 1980. Though the identity of the assassin remains unknown, many of the alleged conspirators have long been identified and live on untouched, a sore that has continued to fester within Salvadoran society.

Now, more than 24 years later, a court in California will today hear evidence against one of those accused of orchestrating the murder of Archbishop Romero. That man, Alvaro Rafael Saravia, the right-hand man to the leader of El Salvador's death squads of the 1980s, has lived in the US for the past 19 years but has not been seen in public since papers were filed against him last September. The hearing will be held in his absence.

The civil action is designed to establish Mr Saravia's alleged complicity in the killings and seek damages against him. Archbishop Romero often spoke critically of the US, which supported the right-wing government of El Salvador and those of other Latin American countries in their so-called "dirty wars", training and funding paramilitary forces.

Among those trained by the US was Mr Saravia's boss, the late Major Roberto D'Aubuisson who is said to have ordered the archbishop's assassination. He studied at the notorious School of the Americas, a US military college in Fort Benning, Georgia, which for decades taught counter-insurgency to more than 60,000 cadets from Latin American regimes, It was renamed in 2001 after a series of scandals, including the discovery there of stacks of torture manuals . . . .

Mr Eisenbrant [Matt Eisenbrant, litigation director of the San Francisco-based Centre for Justice and Accountability] said he hoped the civil action could lead to either the US Justice or Immigration departments bringing charges. It is understood Mr Saravia entered the US on a six-month tourist visa. "This lawsuit has unquestionably disrupted Saravia's life," he said. "And it ensures he cannot live openly in the US for fear his victims could seize his assets and he could be arrested and prosecuted for alleged immigration violations." Nico van Aelstyn, a partner with the law firm Heller, Ehrman, White and McAuliffe, who is helping to bring the case, said: "The assassination of Archbishop Romero was one of the most outrageous single crimes of the last quarter of the 20th century. Given that one of the [suspects] has lived in the US for [at least] 17 years, we Americans have an obligation to bring him to justice. We hope this lawsuit will encourage additional witnesses to come forward with evidence that will enable the courts to bring to justice all those responsible for the crime."

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