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Oct.30, 2000

Delayed, but not denied

Salvadoran ex-leaders sued for nuns' murders

By Steve Friess

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.–Former El Salvadoran Minister of Defense José Guillermo García sat in a federal courtroom here last week, answering questions American lawyers shot at him through Spanish interpreters about his alleged role in the slaying 20 years ago of four American churchwomen. The scene was many miles away from El Salvador, and a lifetime away from the days when the 67-year-old grandfather, who now lives near Fort Lauderdale, was a powerful military leader there. At times appearing dazed, García rattled off denial after denial to the charges hurled at him, no doubt wondering how his plans for a quiet retirement in the Sunshine State had suddenly turned into a veritable international war crimes tribunal.

Five national guardsmen were convicted in 1984 of raping and fatally shooting the three American nuns–Ita Ford, 40, Maura Clarke, 51, Dorothy Kazel, 42– and American church worker Jean Donovan, 32. But the victims' families are now suing García and former Salvadoran National Guard director-general Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 61, for civil damages under a rarely used 1991 U.S. law. Under the Torture Victim Protection Act, the former military men could be found liable for ignoring human rights abuses and creating an atmosphere that permitted them. The law allows U.S. residents to sue foreigners living in the United States who tortured them or subjected their relatives to extrajudicial killing. But attorneys say it could be tough to convince the 10-member jury that García and Vides Casanova–who in their suits and ties now look like Every Neighbor–played any role in the gruesome slayings.

Abuses. García admitted he was aware of some "abuses" against leftist guerrillas who opposed El Salvador's ruling junta when he was in power from 1979 to 1983. But he insisted he knew of no massacres, despite an estimated 10,000-person death toll in 1980 alone. "It was like any war," he said. But lawyers noted that four of the convicted men said they were acting on their superiors' orders. They also cited a 1993 United Nations report that concluded Vides Casanova played a role in a coverup attempt. Says attorney James Green, who has filed another lawsuit against García and Vides Casanova: "This is one way for victims of torture and other human rights violations to get some measure of truth and justice."

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