A congressional subcommittee will investigate whether FBI agents intimidated a Salvadoran woman and caused her to recant earlier statements she had made, linking elements of El Salvador’s armed forces to last month’s murders of six Jesuit priests in San Salvador, it was learned Monday.
The civil and constitutional rights subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee plans to examine complaints from U.S. Jesuit officials and a lawyers committee that Lucia Barrera de Cerna was “harassed, intimidated and insulted” during FBI interrogation in Miami--to the point that she changed her earlier sworn statements about what she had witnessed.
California Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), the subcommittee chairman, and Jim Dempsey, its chief counsel, refused to discuss the matter other than to acknowledge their intended inquiry.
Justice Department officials and a spokesman for the State Department, meanwhile, said the questioning of Cerna and her husband by two FBI agents and a representative of El Salvador’s army was proper.
Cerna, the principal witness, her husband Jorge and their daughter were flown to Miami with diplomatic protection after the Nov. 16 killings so that Cerna could be questioned in safety about her statements that she had seen armed men in Salvadoran army-type camouflage uniforms at the time of the pre-dawn massacre.
But after three days of questioning, Cerna changed her original story, saying she heard gunfire but saw nothing. She and her family now are living in a secret location in the United States under the care of American Jesuits.
Both Cerna and her husband failed an FBI-administered lie-detector test after they changed their original testimony, authorities said. There was no explanation as to why the polygraph was not given earlier.
David Runkel, a top assistant to Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, said the FBI interviews were reviewed by department officials last week after Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, the Roman Catholic primate of El Salvador, complained that the United States was subjecting Cerna to brainwashing and “psychological torment.”
“People within the department are satisfied that the entire process was conducted in a proper fashion,” Runkel said.
He added that the FBI is providing additional support for the Salvadoran police investigation of the killings. The investigation was ordered by President Alfredo Cristiani, whom the United States is supporting in a war against leftist guerrillas.
Margaret Tutwiler, briefing reporters at the State Department, said a department representative attended all the sessions at which the Cernas were questioned.
“We absolutely and unequivocally deny any allegation that U.S. officials mistreated the witness,” Tutwiler said.
A report by the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights said Cerna changed her story only because she was “frightened and intimidated by the harsh manner” of the questioning. The report was given to reporters by R. Scott Greathead, an officer and first assistant attorney general of New York state.
Father Paul S. Tipton, president of the Assn. of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, endorsed findings in the committee’s report.
The report added that Jorge Cerna, after first supporting his wife’s story, also recanted his account under pressure.
“Like most Salvadorans who have witnessed crimes implicating the military or security forces . . , he has a natural distrust of government investigators,” the report said.
Aside from the House subcommittee’s probe of Cerna’s treatment, a task force appointed by House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) will investigate all aspects of the killings.