SAN SALVADOR — A military appeals court Tuesday ordered the release of three prisoners accused of shooting to death four U.S. Marines and nine civilians at an outdoor cafe in 1985.
The tribunal upheld a decision by a lower military court pardoning the men under a sweeping amnesty law on political crimes. The three have never been brought to trial for the killings, for which a leftist guerrilla faction claimed responsibility.
Tuesday's decision apparently will cost the Salvadoran government $18.5 million in U.S. economic support. Congress voted in December to withhold 10% of the $185 million in economic aid approved for El Salvador this year if the suspects are released.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said his department is examining the legislation but that it appears the 10% cut will be automatic upon their release.
In San Salvador, U.S. Embassy spokesman Jake Gillespie called the court order "morally wrong and politically damaging. We are dismayed at the court's decision."
He said the embassy is studying possible appeals. However, the Salvadoran attorney general, Roberto Giron Flores, said the appeals process has been exhausted. "There is no more recourse," Giron Flores said.
The prisoners could be released as early as Friday, according to the military court secretary.
On the evening of June 19, 1985, assailants opened fire with machine guns on two outdoor cafes in the trendy Zona Rosa neighborhood of San Salvador. Four off-duty Marines from the U.S. Embassy guard were killed along with two American computer technicians, five Salvadorans, a Chilean and a Guatemalan. One of the rebel gunmen apparently was among the victims.
The Central American Revolutionary Workers Party, among the smallest of five rebel armies in the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, claimed responsibility for the attack. The guerrillas have vowed to drive the U.S. military out of El Salvador.
Within days, a civilian court sent the case to a military court, saying that it was a political crime.
Never Stood Trial
In August, 1985, police arrested William Celio Rivas Bolanos, Juan Miguel Garcia Melendez and Jose Abraham Dimas Aguilar. The three have been in jail since their arrest but have never stood trial.
In extra-judicial statements and interviews with the press soon after they were arrested, Rivas Bolanos admitted to participating in the shooting and Garcia Melendez said he was a member of the guerrilla faction but had no role in the attack. Dimas Aguilar said he had a brother in the party but denied any involvement.
The Farabundo Marti Front has said the prisoners did not participate in the assault. Ferman Cienfuegos, one of the five Farabundo Marti Front commanders, said in a recent interview that the rebels who carried out the attack fled the city and that the leader had since been killed in combat.
The Salvadoran amnesty law was put into effect last Nov. 5 as a result of a regional peace plan signed by five Central American presidents. More than 400 political prisoners accused of ties to the leftist guerrillas were released under the amnesty. The law also forgave thousands of rightist death-squad killings committed in the early 1980s.
Last November, a military judge ruled that the amnesty applies to the three suspects in the Zona Rosa case because the killings were politically motivated. The U.S. Embassy filed an appeal, as did Atty. Gen. Giron Flores. They argued that the suspects had committed aggravated homicide--a common crime.
However, the military appeals court Tuesday upheld the ruling of the lower court and the civilian court that originally sent the case to the military court.
'Objective Was Military'
"It was a political case," said Rene Samuel Valdivieso, secretary of the military court. "Their objective was a military target."
Valdivieso said the judges did not take into account the issue of the prisoners' guilt or the conflicting decisions in similar cases.
Last month under the amnesty, a civilian judge freed two former members of El Salvador's National Guard who were serving 30-year terms for murdering two American agricultural advisers and a Salvadoran land reform official. The judge said the case was political because a government official had been targeted.
U.S. officials at the time said they were outraged by the release of the guardsmen and threatened to review a $9-million U.S. aid program to improve El Salvador's judiciary. Embassy spokesman Gillespie said Tuesday that no decision has been made on that aid.
Earlier this month, another civilian judge denied amnesty to five National Guardsmen serving 30-year terms for killing four U.S. church workers in 1980. The judge said the men were convicted of the common crimes of murder, sexual assault and robbery.
Aryeh Neier, vice chairman of the U.S.-based human rights group Americas Watch, criticized the amnesty law and the conflicting decisions under it.
"I have no idea if the prisoners in the Zona Rosa case are guilty or innocent, but if there is a basis for bringing charges against them, I would like to see them prosecuted," he said.