SAN SALVADOR — The Salvadoran legislature Thursday approved a compromise amnesty law that allows guerrillas to return to civilian life and gives an impartial commission freedom to investigate any war crime committed by either side during 12 years of civil war.
But the law leaves the door open for the lawmakers to decree another amnesty for even the most notorious human rights abuses after they have been investigated by a Truth Commission established under an agreement to end the country's strife.
The National Reconciliation Law declares a general amnesty for all but those people who have been convicted by a civilian court--an exemption that prevents the immediate release of the two army officers convicted of killing six Jesuit priests in November, 1989.
The law goes into effect on Feb. 1 when a cease-fire begins, and rebel leaders may return to legal political activities.
The amnesty also excludes those people the commission determines have committed "serious acts of violence since January, 1, 1980, whose impact on society urgently requires public knowledge of the truth. . . ."
Six months after the commission has publicized its findings, however, the Legislative Assembly may take further measures "that it deems convenient" regarding these cases.
"We are on the razor's edge," legislator Gerardo LeChevalier, a Christian Democrat, said of the law. "Total injustice is an obstacle to peace and so is absolute justice. . . . This gives the Truth Commission a blank check to investigate. When their recommendations are known, eventually there can be amnesty for these cases."
A peace commission made up of rebels, government and political party representatives hammered out the law in Mexico City hours before returning to El Salvador. The legislature passed it unanimously Thursday night after an emotional debate with prayers and words of homage paid to those killed in the war.
The ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena party, had sought a blanket amnesty that would have immediately pardoned all war criminals, including the officers convicted in the killing of the Jesuits, their maid and her daughter at the Central American University. Their proposal effectively would have prevented the Truth Commission from investigating any cases.
Opposition political parties, trying to change a history of official impunity for human rights crimes, wanted a limited amnesty that excluded the worst abuses.
Armando Calderon Sol, president of Arena, insisted that the government party is pleased with the compromise. The right-wing legislators cast their votes with raised fists.
"We are a majority in the Legislative Assembly. We have the government. But we have arrived at consensus law that reflects all the political forces of the nation," Calderon Sol said.
The government came under pressure from the United States, the United Nations, the Roman Catholic Church and international human rights groups to back down on a blanket amnesty. They want to see El Salvador investigate several massacres believed carried out by the army and several assassinations believed carried out by rebels.
On the other hand, the military was pressuring for an amnesty that would lead to the release of Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides and Lt. Yusshy Rene Mendoza, who were convicted in the Jesuits' murder last September. Gen. Juan Orlando Zepeda, vice minister of defense and army hard-liner, attended the negotiations in Mexico City.
"He was there to win Benavides' freedom," said Mario Aguinada of the leftist National Democratic Union.
Ruben Zamora, vice president of the Assembly and leader of the leftist Democratic Convergence, conceded that the officers eventually could get amnesty. "In theory they could get out but then others could be jailed. . . . The Assembly will decide what to do."