[News] 11th Circuit rules for Salvadoran torture victims, against generals

Anti-Imperialist News News at freedomarchives.org
Wed Feb 15 14:18:54 EST 2006

Victims win torture case
Wednesday, February 1st 2006
Teresa Borden, Atlanta Jounal Constitution

It has been nearly 23 years since a death squad --- 14 unknown,
non-uniformed, heavily armed men --- burst into Carlos Mauricio's 
university classroom in
San Salvador, El Salvador, and took him away for 10 days of beatings 
and abuse.
An Atlanta appellate court last month handed him a long-awaited victory over
those responsible for his torture.

A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed itself,
saying that Mauricio and two other victims are entitled to damages from Jose
Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, former high officials in
the Salvadoran military who Mauricio and the other plaintiffs say 
ordered their

The plaintiffs were able to sue their torturers because both parties now live
in the United States. The legal basis used is the Torture Victims Protection
Act and the Alien Tort Claims Act.

A jury in Florida first granted the trio almost $55 million in July 2002, but
Garcia and Casanova, former defense ministers in the Salvadoran military,
appealed, saying that the 10-year statute of limitations of the act ran out
before the suit was filed.

In its Jan. 4 decision, the court concluded that such limits should be
extended when the victims can reasonably expect violent retribution 
if they sue
their torturers within the time limits.

"Until the end of civil war in 1992, the military would have used its
significant power to thwart any efforts to redress the human rights 
violations that
it had perpetrated," the judges said. "The plaintiffs legitimately feared that
their family members and friends remaining in El Salvador would be subject to
harsh reprisals and the same brutalities that the plaintiffs suffered."

Indeed, the statute of limitations hasn't run out on Mauricio's memory ---
the past is not forgotten.

"I smelled the odor of death, the odor of powerlessness: adrenaline mixed
with blood and urine," he said. Then came the beatings, the hanging 
by the arms,
the hours of forced standing.

For Mauricio and the others, that past isn't even past. In April 2004, photos
of naked, bound and hooded Iraqi war prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and later
accounts of alleged U.S.-sponsored violations of prisoners' human rights in
Guantanamo Bay, kept the victims' memories as fresh as yesterday.

"What I saw published about what went on in Iraq were the same practices that
I suffered, felt and saw," said Neris Gonzalez, a church worker who was also
a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "I was shocked and surprised that they were still
using those same torture practices."

Mauricio was not surprised. Like many Salvadorans who opposed the regime, he
believes that the U.S. military-sponsored School of the Americas, now known as
the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation and based at
Fort Benning in Columbus, trained paramilitaries --- the so-called 
death squads
--- working covertly for the right-wing government of that time.

"The parallels with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are evident," he said.

The U.S. Defense Department had already launched an investigation into what w
as happening at Abu Ghraib when the photos surfaced, and it said the abuses
were the independent actions of low-ranking soldiers. It later removed 17
soldiers and officers from duty, charging seven criminally and 
convicting them in

But a 2005 report by the group Physicians for Human Rights said
"psychological torture was systematic and central to the 
interrogation process of detainees
in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo."

It fits in with what Mauricio remembers.

"My torturers intentionally left me standing, bound to a pipe, forcing me to
listen to the screams of people who were getting electrical shocks, women who
were being raped, men who were being beaten," he said. "The worst thing was
that I knew I was on that list."

Students targeted

Mauricio says Salvadoran authorities tagged him as a problem while a student
leader at the University of El Salvador, when he complained about injustices
against the poor in his country.

After he graduated and became a science professor, it was only a matter of
time before the paramilitary death squads, which have been blamed for 
of deaths during the civil war, came for him.

Gonzalez and Juan Romagoza Arce, the other plaintiff in the lawsuit, also say
they were branded troublemakers because of their community-building

Gonzales was a church worker, and Romagoza Arce was a doctor. Both worked in
the countryside, where Marxist guerrillas were also waging war.

Romagoza Arce said he regularly saw mutilated bodies in the street in the
towns where he worked trying to organize health fairs for peasants. 
Gonzales said
she tried to stick to Bible teaching. But both say they became targets when
the government sought to stamp out sectors of Salvadoran society it considered
a threat to its policies.

"The government used the guerrillas as an excuse for state-sponsored
terrorism," Mauricio said. To belong to a union or a student group 
was a matter of
life and death. This was the negation of all democratic participation. The
government closed down all democratic protest."

Brutality, then freedom

When the men took him away on that June afternoon in 1983, they beat Mauricio
with such ferocity that they broke two of his ribs and left a nasty cut on
one of his eyes. For nine more days, he said, he was systematically beaten,
interrogated, bound behind his back and hung by the arms from a ceiling beam,
forced to stand for hours without sleep, and kept for days without 
food or water.
Finally, the Red Cross came looking for him.

Mauricio didn't know it, but his family, friends and students had mounted a
nationwide campaign to free him. He was released to his ex-wife, with a
warning: Leave the country immediately. He went to live with relatives in San
Francisco, where he applied for and received political asylum.

He now teaches at a San Francisco high school, though he has taken a
temporary leave to travel on behalf of School of the Americas Watch, 
a nongovernmental
group protesting the activities of the school, which has consistently denied
ever training anyone to violate human rights.

Mauricio says he is thankful for the U.S. justice system that validated his
claims in court.

"My case was based on wanting to find justice," he said.

But he says the American people ought to learn from what happened in El

"Salvadorans are accusing the generals," he said. "They're making sure that
those responsible respond for their crimes. Americans are also responsible for
making their torturers answer for what they have done."

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