Spain indicts Salvadoran soldiers for Jesuit killings

Funderal procession for the murdered priests - file photo 19 November 1989 The murders caused widespread shock and revulsion

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A Spanish judge has charged 20 Salvadoran soldiers with the killing of six Jesuit priests and two women during El Salvador's civil war.

The priests, five of whom were Spanish, their housekeeper and her daughter were shot dead by soldiers in 1989.

The case was filed using Spain's universal jurisdiction law, which holds that some crimes are so grave that they can be tried anywhere.

Among those indicted are two former defence ministers.

Col Rene Emilio Ponce was the head of the Salvadoran Armed Forces' joint chiefs of staff at the time of the killings. He was later promoted to general and became the country's defence minister.

According to a report by a United Nations Truth Commission, Gen Ponce, who died earlier this month, ordered the killing of the priests.

Gen Rafael Humberto Larios was the minister of defence at the time of the shooting and was present at the meeting where Col Ponce ordered the killing, the commission says.

Eighteen more members of the Salvadoran armed forces have been indicted on charges of crimes against humanity and terrorist killings.

Universal jurisdiction

The judge said the priests had been targeted because they had pushed for negotiations between the government and left-wing rebels.

They worked at the Central American University.

The security forces suspected them of sympathising with left-wing rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

Judge Eloy Velasco said the men had taken the lead in pressing for negotiations between the right-wing government and the left-wing rebels.

"That was the fundamental motive for the killing," the judge 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.

Two officers were convicted of the shooting of the priests and the two women in 1991, but both were freed two years later as part of an amnesty law agreed under the peace treaty.

Judge Velasco has issued international warrants to Spanish police and Interpol, ordering that the accused appear before the Spanish courts within 10 days.

However, trials under the universal jurisdiction law have been rare.

El Salvador's civil war, which raged in the 1980s. left more than 70,000 people dead. Peace was formally brokered in 1992.

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