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2 Held Liable for Salvador Torture

July 24, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — A Florida jury on Tuesday found two retired generals from El Salvador liable for torture, rape and other atrocities committed during that nation's civil war two decades ago, and ordered them to pay $54.6 million to three surviving victims.

Rights activists said that the verdict in a West Palm Beach, Fla., federal court was unlikely to lead to any large-scale payout but that it should help deter other foreigners who are responsible for killings and other abuses from seeking U.S. residency.

"Now other perpetrators understand that if they come here, we will find them, we'll find people they've hurt, or the families of those who have been killed," said Richard Krieger, president of International Educational Mission, a human rights organization in Boynton Beach, Fla. The jury in the civil case found that retired Salvadoran generals Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo Garcia, both of whom live in Florida, knew their soldiers were torturing and murdering civilians but did nothing to stop it or to bring those responsible to account.

"This verdict sends a message to commanders everywhere that they are responsible for the abuses of the troops they command and they cannot come to the United States to seek a haven from punishment," said James Green, attorney for the three victims.

The plaintiffs--a church worker, doctor and professor--fled their Central American homeland after being tortured. On July 17, two of the victims bared their arms to jurors, revealing scars from a gunshot, cigarette burns and machetes.

The victims, who also are U.S. residents, sued the generals under a 1991 federal law that empowers American courts to levy damages against those found responsible of committing human rights abuses abroad.

Two of the plaintiffs, Carlos Mauricio and Neris Gonzalez, were in the courtroom Tuesday and wept as the verdict was read. Garcia had been Salvadoran defense minister from 1979 to 1983. Before succeeding him as the top military official in the U.S.-backed government, Vides Casanova commanded the national guard. The generals repeatedly said that they had done nothing wrong but that they could not control rogue subordinates in the fog of a bitter war against a leftist insurgency.

"There's no doubt what happened in El Salvador was horrible, that what happened to these people was horrible. It was a horrible war, a dirty war," defense lawyer Kurt Klaus Jr. said. "But I don't think the parties that are responsible for what happened to these people [the victims] are here."

The attorney told reporters that his clients are unable to pay the huge amount assessed in damages, and that they couldn't even afford to appeal. In a similar lawsuit two years ago, the generals, who have lived in Florida for 13 years, were not found liable for the 1980 torture, rape and murder of four U.S. Catholic missionaries.

In an interview with Associated Press, Garcia called the decision "unfair" and said the jury didn't understand the "terrible" violence in El Salvador. He said one of his goals had been to fight the brutality. Neither defendant was in court Tuesday.

According to a United Nations commission, before peace accords ended El Salvador's civil war in 1992, half a million people fled their homes and 75,000 were killed. Most of the refugees and victims were helpless civilians. The three who sued said Salvadoran police and soldiers thought they were allied with insurgents.

Juan Romagoza, the physician, said he was beaten, sexually abused and shot while being held for interrogation. He testified that Vides Casanova visited him once while he was chained to the floor. A former surgeon, Romagoza said he can no longer perform operations because soldiers bound his fingers with wire, making them permanently numb.

Gonzalez, a church worker who had been teaching peasants to count so they would not be cheated in the marketplace, was abducted when eight months' pregnant. She was beaten and raped numerous times, then dumped in a garbage bin with a heap of corpses. She gave birth prematurely, and her son died two months later from injuries.

Sobbing as she delivered harrowing testimony, Gonzalez, a 56-year-old Chicago resident, said the national guard troops dragged her to a building whose floor was littered with the body parts of torture victims.

On the door, she said, the troops had written a sinister name in blood--El Matadero Humano, or the Human Slaughterhouse.

Mauricio, the university professor, was kidnapped, blindfolded, strung up by the arms and beaten for eight days at national police headquarters in San Salvador. The beatings, he said, caused permanent damage to his vision. The jury awarded $20 million to Romagoza, $21.5 million to Gonzalez, and $13.1 million to Mauricio.

A teary-eyed Gonzalez said: "The money is nice, but it's not the most important thing. It is knowing that now we have justice."

According to Krieger, whose organization helped compile information on the generals' alleged actions for use in the trial, the United States is home to an estimated 1,100 foreigners who engaged in torture, persecution, killings or other human rights abuses in other countries.

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