[fla-left] [human rights] Salvadoran generals face West Palm jury in nun slayings (fwd)

Michael Hoover hoov at SPAMfreenet.tlh.fl.us
Thu Oct 5 14:05:48 MDT 2000


forwarded by Michael Hoover

> Salvadoran generals face jury in nun slayings
>
> By Susan Spencer-Wendel,
> Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
> Sunday, October 1, 2000
>
> WEST PALM BEACH -- The television images from a field in El Salvador
> riveted America 20 years ago.
>
> Peasants hauling the corpses of three nuns and a missionary out of the
> dirt with rope. Dragging the four American churchwomen like lassoed
> cattle across the ground. Laying them neatly, covering with branches to
> keep the flies away. A grim-faced American ambassador looking on.
>
> Five Salvadoran soldiers would be imprisoned in El Salvador in 1984 for
> raping Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary
> Jean Donovan, then shooting them in the head. But that was no end at all
> to the sad story.
>
> A new chapter begins in West Palm Beach Oct. 10. Inside a walnut-paneled
> federal courtroom, relatives of the four murdered women will ask a jury
> to hold two of El Salvador's highest ranking military officers
> accountable.
>
> Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia was minister of defense and Gen. Carlos Vides
> Casanova was director of the national guard in 1980, the year the
> churchwomen and at least 9,000 other civilians were killed in the
> murderous rampages of civil war.
>
> The relatives' local lawsuit against the generals is one where money is
> the only penalty. Court filings say the families will ask for, at the
> very least, a million dollars.
>
> In this fight, the nuns are the ones with the the small army. Two of
> Florida's most prominent lawyers have enlisted for free, backed by
> attorneys from a powerful human rights group in New York that has
> investigated the murders since 1980. They've spent at least $200,000 to
> hunt the hemisphere for evidence and witnesses and bring them to West
> Palm Beach for trial.
>
> But why here, why now? Because the Salvadoran generals are here, now, in
> Florida.
>
> The churchwomen's families found that out a few years ago, while taping
> a CBS show on the murders in New York. Host Bryant Gumbel surprised them
> with the news just before they went on the air.
>
> Mike Donovan, a Palm Beach Gardens accountant, was there. He is the
> older brother of Jean Donovan, the 27-year-old lay missionary murdered
> with the nuns.
>
> "I couldn't believe it. All the deserving people in the world begging to
> live in the United States, and they let murderers in," Donovan, 49,
> said. "That's what eats at me."
>
> The group agreed then and there to sue Garcia and Vides Casanova.
>
> Donovan and the other plaintiffs say the case is not about getting
> money. Donovan hadn't even heard the $1 million figure mentioned in
> court documents.
>
> "Me personally? I'd be satisfied if during the trial, the generals went
> home, packed their bags and slipped out of the country in the middle of
> the night," he said.
>
> Garcia a grandpa in Plantation
>
> Home for Garcia is a ranch-style house in a middle-class neighborhood in
> Plantation. It has all the amenities: a big-screen television, a giant
> satellite dish and a swing set for any of his 11 grandchildren.
>
> On this August afternoon, the general appears at the front door in a
> pressed blue-striped shirt and navy pants. The 67-year-old has graying
> hair, wrinkles and a paunch, but a posture built so true it has yet to
> bend.
>
> He waves bye-bye to his grandchildren before settling in on the sofa's
> pink satin pillows to talk about his 30-year military career.
>
> This is the man human rights activists call a merciless assassin,
> presiding over an era in El Salvador where thousands, including
> peasants, priests and the Archbishop Oscar Romero, were murdered.
>
> He sits in the living room surrounded by silk-flower arrangements,
> knickknacks, statuettes and pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. A
> U.S. resident for more than 10 years, Garcia doesn't want to budge.
>
> The former minister of defense turns the blank white pages of his
> military discipline record like pages in a hymnal.
>
> "Blanco, blanco, blanco," he says dramatically after each one. He does
> not speak English, he says.
>
> Then Garcia turns to honors awarded him by the U.S. Department of
> Defense -- including the presidential Legion of Merit for "exceptionally
> meritorious conduct" and "outstanding services" from October 1979 to
> April 1983 -- one of the bloodiest eras in the history of the
> hemisphere.
>
> Garcia often met American military advisors, dealing for millions of
> dollars to fight his government's war against a Communist takeover.
> Garcia says it's absurd that he would have had anything to do with the
> deaths of four American churchwomen. He says he didn't order it or try
> to cover it up.
>
> "It hurt me personally, the vulgar assassination of these women," Garcia
> says. "I was as sorry as anyone else."
>
> According to the lawsuit, though, Garcia said at a Salvadoran Cabinet
> meeting a month before the nuns' murders that the churchworkers in their
> region, called Chalaltenango, were collaborating with leftist guerillas
> and something should be done about them.
>
> The families also claim the national guard director, Vides Casanova,
> said that he would kill 200,000 to 300,000 people if that's what it took
> to stop a Communist takeover. Vides Casanova, who lives in Palm Coast,
> just north of Daytona Beach, declined to comment for this article.
>
> Garcia, Vides Casanova's superior officer, says the armed forces were
> divided. Officers and enlisted men were deserting to join left-wing
> rebel groups and right-wing death squads. He could not control the
> heinous things they did -- like shooting Romero at the pulpit and
> machine-gunning the masses at his funeral, Garcia says.
>
> El Salvador's civil war ended in 1992, after 12 years during which more
> than 75,000 people were killed. The generals retired long before its end.
> Garcia says death threats against him from both left- and right-wing
> groups forced him to come to the States in 1989. He received political
> asylum. "No problem," he says.
>
> A picture of Pope John Paul II shaking his hand when he was minister of
> defense hangs in the living room. "He (the Pope) told me then I was in a
> very delicate situation," Garcia says, "I certainly was."
>
> Victim's brother won't give up
>
> Bill Ford sat in Garcia's living room, heard the same story, and decided
> it was all lies.
>
> He said Garcia is a hard person, "hard in the sense of rigid,
> determined, a man who would do whatever he felt had to be done."
>
> Ford, 64, is the older brother of murdered Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford.
> He's the lawsuit's lead plaintiff, its driving force. Ford's also the
> founder of a Wall Street law firm, a well-connected citizen who has
> hounded reluctant U.S. government leaders to investigate the deaths.
>
> Ford is the only relative who has met the generals. He went to their
> homes, talked to them and walked away more committed to suing.
>
> "People reasonably ask 'Hey, it's 20 years later . . . why don't you
> just give up?' " Ford says.
>
> His answers are many. The families have always been seen by the U.S.
> government as a "problem," having interrupted national support for the
> murder machine in El Salvador, Ford says. The court case is a chance to
> fully tell their story. It's also to "let the American people know that
> butchers are allowed to retire in the United States."
>
> A victory over the generals wouldn't require they leave. It would give
> the families ammo, though, to ask the Immigration and Naturalization
> Service to kick them out. A large monetary award also could force them
> to flee, Ford says.
>
> "That would be a satisfactory ending too," he says.
>
> Anti-tobacco lawyers sign on
>
> Trying to get that judgment will be two of the lawyers who represented
> Florida in its $13 billion victory against tobacco companies in 1997.
> Bob Montgomery of West Palm Beach and Bob Kerrigan of Pensacola won tens
> of millions in the tobacco lawsuit and are paying the bill in the nuns'
> case.
>
> Montgomery said that when Kerrigan asked him to help on the case, he had
> to go to a map to see where El Salvador was. He and Kerrigan each
> committed $100,000, but it will likely be much more, Montgomery said.
>
> The generals' Miami attorney is Kurt R. Klaus Jr. Vides Casanova's
> daughter went to college with Klaus' wife.
>
> Klaus says the generals are easy targets, with little money to travel,
> search for witnesses, or do research. They're paying him bit by bit, he
> said.
>
> "I understand that the relatives want to avenge the deaths, but they're
> going after the wrong people," Klaus says. "The idea that these guys
> could control every single member of the military during a time of
> complete anarchy is absurd."
>
> Klaus made a solid stream of pretrial requests that the case be
> dismissed -- including that the time limit to sue the generals is up or
> that the claim should have been made in El Salvador. U.S. District Judge
> Daniel T.K. Hurley rejected nearly all of those, leaving Klaus
> scrambling.
>
> In August, Klaus asked Hurley to delay the case one year. He wrote that
> he may have "mis-thought" his ability to win on pretrial motions and
> needed the time to get State and Defense Department records. "The
> plaintiffs have had 19 years to build their case, the generals just more
> than a year," he wrote.
>
> The judge denied that request too, saying he had already granted one
> delay. On Friday, Hurley set it to begin Oct. 10 and cleared four weeks
> of his calendar to hear it.
>
> The plaintiffs got special permission to set-up multimedia equipment for
> their arsenal of evidence, machines to play the videos and tapes,
> computer projectors to display declassified State Department cables and
> documents on a big wall.
>
> The witnesses for the churchwomen's families are expected to testify
> about death squads, torture chambers and massacres which they say the
> generals knew about, but did nothing to stop. They include Latin
> American military experts, United Nations officials and Robert White,
> the grim-faced American ambassador who stood at the churchwomen's grave.
> White, who now works at a Washington think tank, may testify that Garcia
> acknowledged to him that his soldiers were engaged in death squad
> activities and that the generals had prior knowledge of atrocities but
> did nothing to stop them.
>
> The plaintiffs tried at one point to get former Secretary of State
> Alexander Haig to testify. But Montgomery said he later decided just to
> show jurors video of Haig's testimony before Congress shortly after the
> nuns' murder.
>
> In it, Haig says that he's been told the nuns' mini-bus ran a roadblock
> and that an exchange of gunfire could have taken place -- a statement
> later proven completely false. Montgomery hopes that will show the
> generals' desire to cover-up the crime by giving false information to
> the State Department.
>
> The United Nations officials may testify about a 1993 U.N. investigation
> that found fault in the actions of both men. The report concluded that
> Vides Casanova knew his national guardsmen had committed the murders and
> covered up facts during the Salvadoran judicial investigation. And it
> concluded that Garcia made no serious effort to thoroughly investigate
> those guilty of the executions.
>
> Then, Dr. Cyril Wecht, a renowned forensic pathologist, will piece
> together evidence to describe the nuns' last moments as they were raped
> and shot in the head.
>
> After that heavy lineup will come the defense. Klaus declined to say who
> his defense witnesses are.
>
> "Nothing compared to them," Garcia says.
>
> 'A final nail in the coffin'
>
> The churchworkers' families are able to sue the generals under the
> Torture Victim Protection Act, a 1992 federal law. It allows victims of
> war crimes or their families to sue in U. S. courts high-ranking
> officers who maybe didn't pull the trigger or tie the noose, but ordered
> it done.
>
> It was used this year to sue former Bosnian Serb President Radovan
> Karadzic.
>
> In one of the law's first tests in 1992, thousands of Filipinos filed a
> class-action lawsuit in Hawaii against their ex-president, Ferdinand
> Marcos, saying they were victims of torture, murder and imprisonment
> during his 14-year term. That jury awarded $22 billion to all the
> victims, a record verdict later overturned.
>
> In 1995, a Boston court ordered an ex-defense minister of Guatemala to
> pay $47.5 million to an American nun who was tortured and to eight
> Guatemalans who were terrorized by the Guatemalan military.
>
> It's often impossible to recover the money in such victories, said Ken
> Hurwitz, an attorney with the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights, the
> powerful New York group backing the churchwomen's case.
>
> But it's still necessary to pursue them, he says. Hurwitz has worked on
> the case for nearly two years, traveling to El Salvador to interview
> witnesses and amass evidence.
>
> "Money is not the driving force here," Hurwitz says. "It's about getting
> some sort of objective validation for what these families felt. It's
> also for the educational value, so people know these criminals are able
> to come and live in the United States."
>
> Sensing that jurors might need a primer on El Salvador -- a country the
> size of Massachusetts with about the same population, 6.1 million --
> Judge Hurley asked for expert testimony on "a country so far away we
> know so little about." In fact, it's a little confusing even for the
> people involved. The first draft of a questionnaire mailed to potential
> jurors referred once to the country as "Honduras."
>
> The trial will be a long haul for jurors, lawyers and family members
> alike. All the women's relatives say they'll attend, but not all with
> the same enthusiasm.
>
> Donovan, the Palm Beach Gardens accountant, is a district governor for
> Rotary International who travels a lot because of his position. He said
> he'll come as much as his schedule allows, but is not eager to do so. It
> means dredging up bad memories, particularly if they play that video
> again of his sister, Jean, and the three nuns being dragged out of the
> dirt.
>
> The older brother of Sister Dorothy Kazel has different expectations.
> Plaintiff Jim Kazel, who lives near Cleveland, said the case may finally
> be the end to the sad story of the murder of three nuns and a missionary
> in El Salvador 20 years ago.
>
> "It's hard to say but, it might close things once and for all," Kazel
> says. "A final nail in the coffin, if I can put it that way."





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