On November 13, 2008, CJA filed a criminal case before the Spanish National Court in Madrid against former Salvadoran President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Alfredo Cristiani Burkard, and 14 former officers and soldiers of the Salvadoran Army for their role in the notorious Jesuits Massacre.
The case was filed in Spain using the country’s universal jurisdiction law. CJA and our colleagues at the Spanish Association for Human Rights (APDHE) jointly filed the case as popular prosecutors. The complaint alleged crimes against humanity, the cover up of crimes against humanity and state terrorism.
The Spanish National Court Issues Formal Charges
On January 13, 2009, Judge Eloy Velasco, the judge of the Sixth Chamber of the Spanish National Court formally charged 14 former officers with murder, crimes against humanity and state terrorism for their role in the massacre. Additionally, the judge reserved the right, during the course of the investigation, to charge former Salvadoran President and Commander of the Armed Forces Alfredo Cristiani for his role in covering up the crime.
Since the decision on admissibility, CJA has presented fact and expert witnesses to testify before Judge Velasco and prepared the documentary record of the crime, the criminal investigation, and the subsequent legal proceedings.
In May 2009, Judge Velasco heard testimony from José Luis Ruiz Navarro, a Spanish Senate Special Counsel, who traveled to El Salvador as a member of the first Spanish parliamentary commission to report back on the crime; Enrique Arnaldo Alcubilla, a Spanish Senate Special Counsel who led the second parliamentary commission to El Salvador to observe the Salvadoran trial; and Fernando Alvarez de Miranda, the Spanish ambassador to El Salvador in 1989. These witnesses prepared detailed reports on the failures of the investigation in El Salvador and the irregularities at the trial. Their reports, like at least a half dozen others which have been presented to Judge Velasco, indicate that El Salvador failed to investigate or indict the real authors of the crime.
Witnesses & Testimonies
Through the course of the presentation of testimony and documentary evidence, CJA was committed to present as complete a picture of the ordering of and carrying out of the assassinations as possible. This goal was not only to give Judge Velasco evidence of the involvement of high ranking officials, but to create an accurate historical record of the crime. At the time of previous investigations of the crime, such as that of the Truth Commission, the wealth of new information about the crimes was not available. To this end, CJA was able to put before the court information regarding the participation of a number of other key military players in the conspiracy to kill the Jesuit priests.
The testimonies have included the following:
The testimony of expert witness Professor Terry Karl: Professor Karl, the Gildred Professor of Latin American Studies and member of the faculty of the Political Science Department of Stanford University, is a world renowned expert on El Salvador and spoke with authority on the subject of the Jesuits’ killings.
The expert testimonies of Henry Campos and Sidney Blanco: Both men are former public prosecutors in El Salvador assigned to the Jesuit case who resigned publicly to protest governmental pressure to insulate the true authors of the crime from investigation and the military’s withholding of relevant information from the prosecution. Campos and Blanco presented compelling evidence to the Spanish National Court that the defendants in this case were never investigated in El Salvador and that the proceedings there do not represent a prior restraint on the Spanish judge’s actions in the criminal case pending before them.
The testimony of expert witness Kate Doyle: Doyle is a long-time researcher for the National Security Archive. The National Security Archive has been responsible for the declassification and organization of tens of millions of U.S. government documents, including a large collection of documents specifically related to the Jesuit massacre.
Judge Velasco also heard testimony from the only surviving non-military eye-witnesses to the massacre in his second hearing. On the night of the killings, two civilian eyewitnesses Lucía Cerna, who worked on the campus, and her husband Jorge Cerna, saw the military on the campus and were among those who discovered the bodies.
Finally, during the third scheduled hearing there was an extraordinary development: one of the participants in the killing came forward and approached Almudena Bernabéu, CJA’s international attorney, asking to testify as a protected witness. Judge Velasco was riveted by the protected witness’ testimony against his co-defendants, hearing from the witness his insider account of the way the military command functioned, the chronology of the murders, the way the order passed through the chain of command and the cover up.
Indictment & International Arrest Warrants Issued
On May 30, 2011, the Spanish National Court issued a 77-page indictment which added six new defendants to the original 14. The court also issued international arrest warrants through Interpol. In the charging document, Judge Velasco describes the far reaching conspiracy to kill the Jesuit priests and explains how it was conceived as a military operation at the highest levels of the Salvadoran military and the National Intelligence Directorate.
In August 2011, nine of the 20 defendants in the case – all former Salvadoran military officials – made a decision to self-surrender to Salvadoran military authorities. The decision to self-surrender to the military presumably was an attempt to defy the usual civilian process involving international arrest warrants and extradition treaties. They erroneously believed that they could invoke military, as opposed to, civilian courts’ criminal jurisdiction.
In an unprecedented development, the Minister of Defense of El Salvador accepted the validity of the international arrest warrants and turned the defendants over to civilian authorities where they were held in custody temporarily. Unfortunately, the Salvadoran Supreme Court issued a problematic ruling that the arrest warrants were invalid because the Spanish judge had not yet issued an extradition request. Even though these nine defendants are free in El Salvador, they cannot travel outside the country without risking arrest elsewhere.
In November 2011, Judge Velasco issued the extradition requests for the defendants. This request is pursuant to the formal requirements of the El Salvador-Spanish extradition treaty. On May 9, 2012, as it was anticipated, the Salvadoran Supreme Court denied the extradition of the defendants to Spain. Such a blanket denial contradicts the bilateral Extradition Treaty between Spain and the Republic of El Salvador.
In December 2015, after developments in the Salvadoran Supreme Court that contradicted their previous positon on international arrest warrants, CJA filed a motion before Judge Velasco requesting the Spanish National Court to re-issue the orders. After going through the appropriate channels, the international arrest warrants were received in El Salvador on January 6, 2016.
On February 5, 2016, the Salvadoran national police arrested four defendants in our criminal trial. The Court ruled against extraditing the four defendants under arrest to Spain because they had been previously tried for the Jesuits Massacre. The court reinstated the status quo prior to the amnesty law. Leaving one officer, Colonel Guillermo Benavides, in prison having been previously convicted, and three soldiers freed having been previously acquitted.
On July 13, 2016, the Constitutional Chambers of the Supreme Court of El Salvador declared the Amnesty Law of 1994 unconstitutional, a law that had protected others implicated in the Jesuits Massacre. The government has yet to arrest any other defendants in the Jesuits Massacre case.
As of January 1, 2017, former CJA Transitional Justice Director, Almudena Bernabeu has retained the clients in the Jesuits Massacre case through her new firm Guernica 37. CJA remains committed to the Jesuits Massacre case and stands ready to assist Guernica 37 if Colonel Montano is extradited, or the Salvadoran government moves to extradite the remaining defendants in the case.