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Colonel Goes on Trial in Salvador Priest Killings : Justice: A civilian court is hearing human rights charges against military men for the first time.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the most defining chapters in El Salvador’s blood-soaked history--the trial of a senior Salvadoran military officer accused in the killing of six Roman Catholic priests and two of their employees--opened Thursday, mired in bureaucratic disorganization, mind-numbing procedure and doubts that the real criminals are in the dock.

This is the first time in El Salvador’s history that any soldier has been summoned before a civilian court for human rights abuses. The case is seen as a crucial test of the nation’s ability to call into account actions of the armed forces after decades of their virtual impunity.

Even in a country where, in 11 years of civil war, an estimated 75,000 people have died, most at the hands of the armed forces, the priests’ murders were stunning and called into question the nature of the elected government and its willingness to end the traditional carnage that marks politics here.

These doubts were not eased by a long, clumsy and questionable investigation in which even American military advisers were besmirched and the U.S. Embassy was accused of covering up the complete nature of the crime.

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Besides testing the elected, civilian government’s control over the military and the efficiency and independence of the judiciary, this trial also will affect the country’s international reputation and hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. economic and military aid.

U.S. congressional leaders have promised that a failure to punish those who murdered the priests will lead to a slash in, if not the elimination of, the $1 million-a-day American aid program here. Even the U.S. Embassy, which supports President Alfredo Cristiani’s civilian government and has opposed aid reduction, says it will turn its back if there is no conviction.

The key defendant is Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, a military academy classmate of many of the country’s most influential officers, who is charged with engineering the Nov. 16, 1989, murder of the six Jesuit priests and two of their housekeepers at their home on the campus of the University of Central America, a Jesuit school in southwestern San Salvador.

Eight other officers and men are accused of murder and other crimes connected with the priests’ killing at the height of a leftist guerrilla offensive; one defendant has fled and is being tried in absentia. If convicted, defendants could be sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison for murder.

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The prosecution contends that Benavides, operating on his own, organized a force of soldiers and sent them to the campus to kill the priests, who he allegedly believed were supporters and organizers of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the rebel group that was carrying out the offensive. But a key question in the case is whether Benavides, described as a brutal but undistinguished officer, could have conceived and carried out such an operation on his own.

Many critics and skeptics believe that Jose Maria Tojeira, El Salvador’s Jesuit leader, is correct in his claim that the “intellectual leaders” of the killings are still free. Critics of the investigation have publicly named Defense Minister Rene Emilio Ponce as engaging in a cover-up, at the least; they say he permitted the killings, if he didn’t actually approve of them in advance. Some have accused Cristiani of having a role, too.

Tojeira’s assertion that the U.S. Embassy participated in a cover-up of the case has led to such a bitter dispute that the credibility of the entire proceeding has been questioned.

The trial was to open at 10 a.m. before a select audience of about 100, including diplomats, international observers and journalists. The trial was to be covered by national television. But it took almost three hours to start as officials struggled with the seating arrangements and other organizational problems. The TV system broke down, leaving the nation watching Spanish dubbed American cartoons.

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When the trial finally opened, Judge Ricardo Zamora of the 4th District Criminal Court announced that the five-member jury had been seated--behind a smoked glass and wood partition--and he ordered the reading of “the minutia,” the summary of all the evidence accumulated in the investigation since the murders.

Under Salvadoran judicial procedure, this will take up to a day and a half, although Zamora indicated he might keep the court in session late into the night for the reading, which outlines this case:

Five days after the FMLN launched a major nationwide attack, Benavides sent 30 members of the special Atlacatl Battalion into the campus and sealed off the house where the Jesuits lived. The priests--Ignacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin Baro, Segundo Montes Mozo, Amando Lopez Quintana, Juan Ramon Moreno and Joaquin Lopez y Lopez--were ordered outside. All but Lopez y Lopez--slain inside the house--were shot while lying face down in the grass. The two women, Julia Elba Ramos, and her daughter Celina, 15, were killed to eliminate them as witnesses.

Although the defendants also face terrorism charges, the jury will decide only the murder accusation; Judge Zamora will decide the other allegations. But under Salvador’s judicial system, a trial has little of the confrontational nature of the American or British system; that is because the judge and his staff, in theory, have carried out much of the interrogation of witnesses.

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In the Salvadoran system, there is no cross-examination; there seldom is any testimony and none is expected in this case.

Most experts say the trial should conclude in three or four days.


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