New Move Studied in Salvador Case : Officers May Face Military Court in Killing of 2 Americans

March 04, 1985|DAN WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

SAN SALVADOR — Stung by criticisms of judicial failure, a government prosecutor in El Salvador is considering a way to reopen a case against two Salvadoran army officers linked to the January, 1981, murders of two American labor advisers and a Salvadoran land reform official.

A trial of two Salvadoran army enlisted men, the confessed gunmen in the killings, is expected to open this spring. So far, though, their superiors have gone free.

Charges against one of the officers, Lt. Rodolfo Lopez Sibrian, were dropped last year after a judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired. Lopez Sibrian was later ousted from the armed forces by President Jose Napoleon Duarte. The other officer, Capt. Eduardo Avila, has never been accused in court.

Reportedly Gave Order

State Department documents charge that Lopez Sibrian ordered the killings, which took place in the coffee shop of the Sheraton Hotel here, and that Avila was an accomplice.

Geronimo Castillo, a prosecutor in the Salvadoran attorney general's office, said he is studying the possibility of turning the cases over to a military court. Under a law known as Decree 50, military tribunals can prosecute those suspected of terrorist crimes. The decree is usually used against left-wing rebels.

"It is possible that Decree 50 might also be employed in the Sheraton case because the object was to assassinate rather than, say, to rob," Castillo noted.

The victims of the submachine-gun slayings were Rodolfo Viera, who headed the Salvadoran government's agrarian reform agency, and Michael P. Hammer and Mark D. Pearlman, labor advisers affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Their Testimony Inadmissible

The two Salvadoran enlisted men have confessed to carrying out the shootings. In their confessions, the men said that Avila and Lopez Sibrian ordered the killings and supplied the weapons. Under Salvadoran law, however, the testimony of someone accused in a crime cannot be used against other suspects.

"We know that the American public is unhappy about the handling of the case," Castillo said. "The U.S. Embassy is interested. We are evaluating what can be done."

Although the embassy here continues to monitor the case, it is not clear how much pressure U.S. officials are willing to exert on the Salvadoran military to put its officers on trial--something it has never done.

There has been only one conviction in a military-related murder during five years of civil war in El Salvador, a period that has been marked by numerous assassinations of civilians, reportedly by elements of the army and police.

Case of Churchwomen

Last May, five enlisted men in the National Guard were convicted of the 1980 slayings of four American churchwomen. Castillo, who maintains close contacts with the U.S. Embassy here, was chief prosecutor in that trial.

The case of the churchwomen--three Roman Catholic nuns and a lay worker--reached a conclusion only after intense pressure from the embassy and from the U.S. Congress, which withheld millions of dollars in military aid to El Salvador pending a conviction.

Despite hope that the guilty verdicts might lead to other convictions, the only fallout from the trial has been a controversial transfer of the judge in the case.

The judge, Bernardo Rauda, was moved last September from his previous post in Zacatecoluca, a one-hour bus ride from his home, to a court in Chalatenango, two hours away.

Fewer Clients These Days

"I am a notary in my spare time, but now I have less chance to practice," Rauda said recently. "I think it was because of the nuns' trial."

The judge said he also earned the dislike of right-wing politicians by demanding that they erase political slogans from the walls of private homes during last spring's presidential elections.

The Supreme Court, which ordered Rauda's transfer, is appointed by the National Assembly, which is controlled by rightist political parties.

Francisco Guerrero, chief of the Supreme Court, said Rauda was transferred because of "anomalies" found during an inspection of court records. "However, I will try to get him a better post," Guerrero said. "It is not good if it appears he was punished because of the churchwomen's trial."

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