SAN SALVADOR — Two army officers convicted in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter were released from prison Thursday as part of a new blanket amnesty sponsored by President Alfredo Cristiani.
In response to U.S. pressure, however, government officials now say the amnesty, decreed last month for all Salvadorans guilty of war crimes, will not be granted to leftist guerrillas who killed U.S. servicemen during the conflict.
The officers convicted in the Jesuits' murders, Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides and Lt. Yusshy Rene Mendoza, will have served about 15 months of their 30-year sentences.
Late Thursday, six bodyguards hustled Benavides past reporters and into a waiting car, which sped off followed by a van full of security personnel. Mendoza had left the prison in the northwestern city of Santa Ana earlier.
"Because the crimes were executed for reasons of the armed conflict that reigned in our country . . . they fall under the amnesty law," court spokesman Jorge Gonzalez said in reading the ruling.
The priests, their cook and her daughter were killed by soldiers from an elite U.S.-trained counterinsurgency unit during a midnight raid on the San Salvador university campus where the priests worked. The November, 1989, raid came at the height of the war's most punishing guerrilla offensive, and army commanders considered the priests to be intellectual mentors of the rebels.
The murders shocked the world and eventually eroded U.S. congressional support for the Salvadoran army.
After a three-day trial in September, 1991, Benavides was found guilty of all eight murders. Mendoza was convicted in the shooting death of the cook's daughter, 15-year-old Celina Ramos. But eight other soldiers, including the confessed triggermen, were acquitted.
At the time, human rights organizations complained that little had been done to establish from how high in the military chain of command the order to kill the priests had come. A report on war crimes issued last month by the U.N.-appointed Commission on Truth says then-Chief of Staff Rene Emilio Ponce ordered them. Ponce, who is now defense minister, has denied the charge.
In its report, the Commission on Truth blamed the majority of wartime atrocities on government forces and right-wing death squads. Cristiani, who relies on the right and the military for political support, was prompted to push for a general amnesty.
A Legislative Assembly dominated by Cristiani's right-wing Arena party passed the amnesty law 12 days ago. Over opposition from the left, the Roman Catholic Church and others, Cristiani said an immediate amnesty was necessary for national reconciliation after El Salvador's brutal 12-year civil war.
The general pardon was to apply to military, rebels and civilians who committed political murder and other human rights crimes during the war--and especially those named in the Commission on Truth report.
Now, however, the government has decided to limit application of the amnesty. Foreign Minister Manuel Pacas Castro announced that two cases in which guerrillas killed Americans will be exempted from the amnesty law.
U.S. officials said they had formally petitioned the Salvadoran government to request that amnesty not be granted in the two cases and in a third involving the slaying of four American churchwomen by guardsmen.
Salvadoran and U.S. officials argued that the cases involving guerrillas should be exempted because the victims, as U.S. citizens accredited to the Salvadoran government and attached to a recognized embassy, enjoyed a form of diplomatic status.
"International (treaty) law prevails over the law of El Salvador," Pacas said.
One case involves three men convicted of spraying a sidewalk cafe with gunfire in 1985, killing four U.S. Marines and nine civilians, including two U.S. businessmen. The gunmen were members of an urban commando contingent belonging to a faction of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrilla organization.
The other involves two members of an FMLN faction who killed two U.S. servicemen injured when their helicopter was shot down by guerrillas in 1991.