Latin America & Caribbean

Spain pushes El Salvador Jesuit murders case

Human rights activists and relatives of victims of El Salvador's civil war demonstrated outside the military base
Image caption Activists demanded the extradition of the men and an end to impunity in El Salvador

Spain has asked El Salvador for information on the legal status of nine Salvadoran ex-soldiers charged with the 1989 murder of six priests, five Spanish and one Salvadoran.

The ex-soldiers turned themselves in at a Salvadoran military base on 8 August.

But on Wednesday, the Salvadoran Supreme Court refused to order their arrest, saying it had not received a formal extradition request from Spain.

The killing became one of the most infamous of El Salvador's civil war.

The nine were indicted by Spanish judge Eloy Velasco in May under Spain's universal jurisdiction law, which holds that some crimes are so grave that they can be tried anywhere.

Legal wrangling

Judge Velasco also issued arrest warrants through Interpol for the former soldiers.

An official at Spain's National Court told the Associated Press news agency that such arrest warrants were issued for the purpose of an eventual extradition for trial.

But the Salvadoran Supreme Court said it had not received a formal extradition request for the men.

Image caption The Salvadoran Supreme Court said there was no extradition order on file for the nine

The Salvadoran tribunal said the nine had handed themselves in voluntarily, and had neither been officially arrested nor jailed.

The tribunal said it would consider an extradition request if it received one, but stressed that all that was pending against the men in El Salvador was an Interpol request that they be located, which the tribunal insisted had been achieved.

A Spanish court official said Spain could not request their extradition until it had been officially informed of their arrest, something which had not yet happened.

Judge Velasco has asked the Salvadoran authorities to clarify "the legal situation of the nine indicted military men and whether they are being held in preventative custody, or detained, and if so, where and under whose authority".

Judge Velasco indicted a total of 20 former soldiers, including two former defence ministers.

The man accused of ordering the killings, Gen Rene Emilio Ponce, died in May.

Another of the accused was freed on bail on Wednesday in the United States, where he is facing an immigration charge.

Nine other suspects remain at large.

Infamous killings

Among those who had handed themselves in was Gen Rafael Humberto Larios.

Gen Larios was the minister of defence at the time of the shooting and was present at the meeting where Ponce ordered the killing, according to a report by a United Nations Truth Commission that investigated the killings.

The 1989 murders of the priests, their housekeeper and her daughter caused widespread shock and revulsion.

The security forces suspected the priests, who worked at the Central American University, of sympathising with left-wing rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

Judge Velasco said the priests had been targeted because they had pushed for negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the rebels.

"That was the fundamental motive for the killing," he said.

Around 70,000 people were killed during the 12-year civil war before a 1992 United Nations-brokered agreement brought peace to the country.

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