Salvadoran officers convicted of slaying priests released under amnesty


SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Two army officers convicted in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter were ordered released from prison yesterday as part of a new blanket amnesty sponsored by President Alfredo Cristiani.

In response to U.S. pressure, however, government officials now say the amnesty, decreed last month for all Salvadorans guilty of war crimes, will not be granted to leftist guerrillas who killed U.S. servicemen during the conflict.

The officers convicted in the Jesuits' murders, Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides and Lt. Yusshy Rene Mendoza, had been sentenced to 30 years in prison. They have served about 15 months in Santa Ana, 40 miles west of San Salvador.

Mendoza left the prison shortly after the release order, while Benavides remained inside the building because he did not want to meet reporters waiting for him, his lawyer said.

"Because the crimes were executed for reasons of the armed conflict that reigned in our country . . . they fall under the amnesty law," Jorge Gonzalez, spokesman for the Fourth Penal Tribunal, said in reading the ruling.

The priests, their cook and her daughter were killed by soldiers from an elite U.S.-trained counterinsurgency unit during a midnight raid on the San Salvador university campus where the priests worked. The November 1989 raid came at the height of the war's most punishing guerrilla offensive, and army commanders considered the priests to be intellectual mentors of the rebels.

The murders triggered international outrage and eventually eroded U.S. congressional support for the Salvadoran army.

Following a three-day trial in September 1991, Benavides was found guilty of all eight murders. Mendoza was convicted in the shooting death of the cook's daughter, 15-year-old Celina Ramos. But eight other soldiers, including the confessed triggermen, were acquitted.

Human rights organizations complained that little had been done to establish from how high in the military chain of command the order to kill the priests had come. A report on war crimes issued last month by the United Nations-appointed Commission on Truth says then-Chief of Staff Rene Emilio Ponce ordered them. Mr. Ponce, who is now defense minister, has denied the charge.

In its report, the Truth Commission blamed the majority of wartime atrocities on government forces and right-wing death squads. Mr. Cristiani, who relies on the right and the military for political support, was prompted to push for a general amnesty.

The Legislative Assembly passed the amnesty law over the objections of the church and others.

The general pardon was to apply to the military, rebels and civilians who committed political murder and other human rights crimes during the war -- and especially those named in the Truth Commission report. Now, however, the government has decided limit application of the amnesty.

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