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National Agenda : A Matter of Justices : Corrupt courts have perpetuated El Salvador's misery, a U.N. panel charges.


SAN SALVADOR — When army officers accused of the 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests were finally brought to trial two years ago, many Salvadorans applauded the event as a sign that justice would be served.

It was rare for a murder case to actually reach a court; rarer still for a military man to face judgment for crimes against civilians.

But after three days of trial and appeals by defense attorneys to the jurors' sense of patriotism and national pride, seven of the nine defendants, including soldiers who confessed to pulling the triggers, were acquitted.

Only two men--Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides and Lt. Yusshy Rene Mendoza Vallecillos--were convicted in the murders of the priests, their cook and her daughter. More importantly, nothing had been established to indicate how high in the military chain of command the culpability went.

To human rights experts and other veteran monitors of El Salvador's weak and corrupt judicial system, the verdicts were not that surprising. The case was doomed much earlier, say these observers--by military control over what evidence would come to light and by politically motivated interference with the judiciary.

The state of the Salvadoran judiciary has emerged once again as a hotly debated topic here after a new report blamed the system for helping to perpetuate a brutal 12-year civil war that killed more than 75,000 people.

In its landmark report, the U.N.-appointed Commission on Truth found that judges and the courts have been so dominated and intimidated by the armed forces that justice is scarce. And without a reasonable expectation of justice, the commission said, a society is doomed to violent self-destruction.

"Not one of the three branches of public power--the judicial, legislative or executive--was capable of controlling the overwhelming military domination of society," the commission stated in its 236-page report, released March 15 in a ceremony at the United Nations.

"The judicial system was weakened as intimidation seized it and laid the foundation for its corruption," the commission said. "Since this power had never enjoyed a true institutional independence from the legislative and executive branches, its inefficiency only increased until it became, either because of inaction or a regrettable attitude of subordination, a contributing factor to the tragedy that the country has suffered."

The commission said that a complete overhaul of the judicial system--starting with the removal of all 14 members of the Supreme Court--is crucial to preventing war's return to El Salvador.

Immediately, this point became the issue that the government and El Salvador's powerful right wing have seized most ferociously in their efforts to discredit and dismiss the report's findings.

"The commission is going much further than we ever intended," said government spokesman Oscar Santamaria, a former justice minister and the government's representative in peace negotiations. "We did not want these gentlemen . . . to come and propose situations that would destabilize the institutions and the system."

The report blamed most of the political murder, torture and other war atrocities on state forces and allied death squads. Leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front also came under criticism for murdering civilian mayors and other war crimes.

The guerrillas and El Salvador's U.S.-backed government forces fought for more than a decade until reaching an impasse two years ago that forced the two sides into negotiations. U.N.-brokered peace accords put a formal end to the war last year.

The same accords established the Commission on Truth. Under the agreement, President Alfredo Cristiani is bound to follow the commission's recommendations. But over the weekend, his party's legislators pushed through a blanket amnesty for political murders and related crimes, undermining the commission's authority.

And where the judiciary is concerned, it appears increasingly unlikely that Cristiani will comply. He is constitutionally barred from firing members of the Supreme Court and does not seem inclined to ask them to step down.

Members of the Supreme Court are chosen by the national Legislative Assembly, which is currently controlled by Cristiani's rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena. The current justices are serving a five-year term that ends in June, 1994. The next court will be appointed by a new Legislative Assembly following general elections in March of that year.

Supreme Court President Mauricio Gutierrez Castro was criticized most harshly by the U.N. report, which cited his "scarcely professional conduct" and accused him of interfering with explosive cases, including the El Mozote massacre.

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