Salvador Pardoning of Americans' Killers Hit : 'Morally Wrong, Politically Damaging' Decision May Face U.S. Challenge in Salvadoran Courts

Times Staff Writer

The State Department, protesting El Salvador's "morally wrong and politically damaging" decision to release the three confessed killers of six Americans in El Salvador, said Saturday that it is considering a legal challenge to the Salvadoran decision.

A military judge in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador on Thursday ordered the gunmen released under terms of an amnesty program for political prisoners. The three men, members of an obscure leftist group, killed 13 people, including four Marine embassy guards and two American computer technicians, in a June 19, 1985, machine-gun attack on two cafes in San Salvador's nightclub district.

Appeal Expected Soon

"Our embassy is exploring every possible legal means of re-incarcerating the accused individuals and assuring their prosecution," State Department spokeswoman Sondra McCarty said. "Here in the State Department we are consulting with our legal advisers on any other route that we might take to ensure that these people do not escape justice."

The department would not elaborate on the form the legal appeal might take, but other officials said the U.S. government is preparing an appeal under Salvadoran law and might be prepared to present to its case to Salvadoran officials as early as next week.

Two suspects in the May 25, 1983, killing of U.S. Lt. Cmdr. Albert A. Schaufelberger III while he was sitting in a car at the University of El Salvador also are expected to be freed under the amnesty.

Amnesty Program

Salvadoran officials said that the suspects are being released as part of an amnesty program for political prisoners included in a Central American peace plan signed in Guatemala on Aug. 7.

On Nov. 5, President Jose Napoleon Duarte authorized a sweeping amnesty law pardoning political crimes committed as a result of the Central American nation's eight-year civil war.

"The killings are reprehensible here or anywhere, but the law is the law, and we must apply the amnesty," Salvadoran Military Judge Jorge Alberto Serrano said in releasing the suspects. So far, about 500 Salvadorans have been released under the amnesty provision.

The State Department disagreed Saturday with the judge's interpretation of the amnesty section of the Guatemala accord, which also was signed by the presidents of Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica.

'Morally Wrong'

"In our discussions with the government of El Salvador, we stated our belief that the amnesty of these persons is morally wrong and politically damaging," the State Department spokeswoman said. "We've repeatedly stated that while we understand the desire of the government of El Salvador to comply fully with the Guatemala agreement, we believe that persons who have committed crimes of terrorism against American citizens should not go unpunished."

McCarty declined to amplify on the statement, but it was noted that it pointedly avoided reference to the suspects as political prisoners. Instead, it denounced the murders for which they were held as "crimes of terrorism."

Thirteen people were killed in the 1985 attack when gunmen wearing Salvadoran army uniforms opened fire on patrons at two outdoor cafes in the popular "Pink Zone" district, a prosperous section of San Salvador.

In Civilian Clothes

The Marines were wearing civilian clothes when the assailants, members of the Mardoqueo Cruz Urban Guerrilla Commandos, drove up in a pickup truck and began shooting. Four Salvadorans, two Guatemalans and a Chilean also were killed in the attack, which left at least 15 others wounded.

The American victims of the attack were embassy Marine guards Thomas Handwork of Beavercreek, Ohio; Bobby J. Dickson of Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Gregory Weber of Cincinnati, and Patrick R. Kwiatkowski of Wausau, Wis. The two civilians killed were computer technicians George Viney of Miami and Robert Alvidrez of Lexington, Mass.

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