September 4, 2004

Salvadoran Ex - Officer Ruled Liable for 1980 Killing


Filed at 6:16 p.m. ET

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A federal judge has ruled that a former El Salvadoran military captain is liable for $10 million in damages for his role in the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, whose killing symbolized death squad terror during El Salvador's civil war.

The hearing marked the first time anyone has been brought to trial for the killing of the popular archbishop who broke church silence on the war by denouncing right-wing death squads murdering suspected supporters of Marxist rebels, human rights attorney Almudena Bernabeu said on Saturday.

Bernabeu, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of The Center For Justice & Accountability, said the decision against Capt. Alvaro Rafael Saravia in U.S. court on Friday sends an important message even if the money is never collected.

Saravia, believed to have moved to the United States in the mid-1980s, did not answer the charges in court nor did he hire an attorney to represent him. His last known address was in the central California town of Modesto, she said.

``This is important because Romero was a huge person in El Salvador,'' Bernabeu said. She added the judge held Saravia liable for $2.5 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in punitive damages.

Rights groups and church officials in El Salvador said others should still be tried in that crime and others committed during a 12-year civil war that cost at least 75,000 lives.

``This is a sign that justice will come in El Salvador, it's a ray of hope,'' said Maria Julia Hernandez, a legal officer for the archbishop of El Salvador.

The San Francisco-based human rights group sued Saravia in September 2003, using two laws that allow civil lawsuits against defendants in the United States when the crime was committed outside the country.

The lawsuit charged that Saravia obtained weapons, vehicles and other tools used to carry out the assassination. It also accused him of providing his personal driver to transport the killer to and from the chapel where the archbishop was shot.

During the five-day hearing in the central California city of Fresno, the group presented declassified U.S. documents and other evidence linking former Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson and Saravia to the murder, Bernabeu said.

D'Aubuisson, who founded El Salvador's ruling ARENA party and later died of cancer in 1992, was widely believed to have been one of the organizers of the death squads.

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