Judgment final against generals responsible for torture in El Salvador
Over $300,000 successfully recovered from former minister of defense found liable for torture of three Salvadorans
With the judgment against him now final, former Salvadoran Minister of Defense Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova has been forced to relinquish over $300,000 of his own funds for his responsibility in the torture of three civilians in El Salvador during the 1980s. While the amount actually collected is only a small fraction of the damages to which the plaintiffs are entitled, this represents one of the first human rights cases in U.S. history in which victims have recovered money from those found responsible for abuses.
In May 1999, the San Francisco-based Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) filed a lawsuit against Vides Casanova and another former Minister of Defense, General Jose Guillermo Garcia, under two federal laws, the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA). In 2002, after a four week trial, a West Palm Beach jury found the generals responsible for the torture of Juan Romagoza, Neris Gonzalez and Carlos Mauricio, and ordered them to pay significant damages.
The generals filed lengthy appeals. On January 6, 2006, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta upheld the verdict against them. The deadline to file an appeal of that decision to the United States Supreme Court has now passed.
Following the verdict in 2002, CJA froze over $300,000 in accounts held by General Vides Casanova. CJA has also presented the court with allegations that Vides Casanova committed fraud by transferring other funds to his relatives after the filing of the case to keep them out of the reach of the victims.
The plaintiffs have stated that, after some of the case expenses are covered, they generously plan to donate most of the money collected from the defendants to support human rights, health, environmental and education projects. They plan to set aside the remainder for treatment related to their torture and to assist family members in need.
Plaintiff Neris Gonzalez said, “Although we are happy that the generals have been punished and made to pay for their crimes, this case was never about money. It was about justice. We had the unique opportunity to show the world, on behalf of all the people of El Salvador, that Generals Garcia and Vides Casanova were responsible for the brutality that we endured. Now the courts of the United States have confirmed that they cannot escape accountability.”
The suit, known as Romagoza v. Garcia, is one of the only cases in which a jury in a fully contested trial has found perpetrators liable for human rights abuses under the law of command responsibility. This principle holds military commanders responsible for abuses committed by subordinates under their control when the commanders knew or should have known that abuses were taking place and failed to take all reasonable measures to prevent the abuses or punish the perpetrators.
CJA’s Litigation Director, Matt Eisenbrandt, stated, “This victory is a landmark for human rights litigation and for El Salvador. The jury’s verdict in 2002 gave confidence to the Salvadoran community, and sent a signal that they do not have to accept the impunity that exists in their country. Without the Romagoza case, we could have never filed other cases – including one involving the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero – that have forced officials to confront the lack of accountability in El Salvador.”
CJA, a non-profit human rights organization that works to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice, was joined as co-counsel by Peter Stern of the Morrison & Foerster law firm, James K. Green, Professor Carolyn Patty Blum, Professor Beth van Schaack and Susan Shawn Roberts. Florida attorneys Dave Gorman and John Thornton have provided assistance in the collection phase of the case.
For more information, please visit CJA’s website.
A copy of the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling is available here.
The families of the four churchwomen killed in El Salvador in December 1980 – Maryknoll sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan – unsuccessfully sued Vides Casanova and Garcia under the Torture Victims Protection Act. Go here to read a 1999 media release on the case from Human Rights First (formerly known as the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights).
Go here for information about “Justice and the Generals,” a film about the case of the four women’s families against Vides Casanova and Garcia.