Amnesty threatens Salvadoran peace Partial pardon could divide country

January 24, 1992|By Pamela Constable | Pamela Constable,Boston Globe

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- A special peace commission reportedly agreed yesterday in Mexico City on an amnesty law for past political violence that would allow former leftist rebels to enter public life, but not erase blame for atrocities such as the 1989 army slaying of six Jesuits and two women.

The controversial issue of amnesty has become a serious potential obstacle to the scheduled Feb. 1 cease-fire in the country's 12-year civil war. On that date, the army and rebels are to begin a gradual process of demobilization, but rebel leaders do not want to return here without a legal guarantee of safety.

Legislative sources said the commission, which includes government and rebel leaders, reached agreement on a partial amnesty after meeting all week. Members were reportedly flying here to present their plan to the legislature, which was expected to vote on it late last night.

No details of the amnesty were available, but liberal legislators said it would prevent conservatives from trying to push through a blanket amnesty that would exonerate most or all military crimes as well as rebel killings.

"If this works out, it will give El Salvador a great head start with an issue that took many months to resolve in countries like Chile, Argentina and Uruguay," said Hector Silva, a center-left legislator.

Some members of the ruling ARENA party have favored granting amnesty in the Jesuit slayings, in which an army colonel and lieutenant were convicted of murder last September. American diplomats and legislators, who fought hard to get the case prosecuted, have strongly opposed such a move.

"I, for one, would be outraged if such a cynical effort to pervert justice were allowed to succeed," Rep. Joseph Moakley, D-Mass., who headed an investigation of the case, said Wednesday. "The cause of reconciliation cannot be served by letting murderers walk free."

On the other hand, U.S. officials have not wanted to see amnesty granted for certain guerrilla crimes, such as the alleged murder vTC of two U.S. helicopter crewmen shot down over a war zone. But that case is also being tried in U.S. courts, which would not be affected by Salvadoran law.

Legislative debate opened late yesterday while lawmakers awaited the peace commission. They agreed that although there was no legal need to act quickly, the controversy had become too politically urgent not to solve in time for the cease-fire.

In interviews and debates this past week, conservative lawmakers and other ARENA leaders stressed that a full amnesty was needed to heal the nation after years of war. To prosecute past abuses, they argued, would only divide the nation and prevent true reconciliation.

"We must forget this tragedy and seek consensus. If we keep searching for new cases, it will lend itself to vulgar politicking and the wounds will never close," said Armando Calderon Sol, the president of ARENA.

Proponents of a broad pardon also said that while they might have accepted some exemptions, it would have been a legal and political nightmare to sort out which cases are "special" enough to prosecute.

But human rights advocates and church leaders have argued that unless the truth is established at least concerning major war crimes, such as the 1988 peasant massacre in San Sebastian, any reconciliation will be artificial and the government will never achieve credibility.

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