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2005-03-02

U.S. Court Reverses $54M Verdict Against Salvadoran Generals Convicted of Torture

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A 54.6 million dollar verdict against two retired Salvadoran generals accused of torture in their home country two decades ago was reversed this week by a federal appeals court which ruled that the victim’s claims failed to meet a 10-year statute-of-limitations rule. We speak with one of the plaintiffs in the case who was tortured in El Salvador and one the lawyers in the suit. [includes rush transcript]

The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights First filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on behalf of eight men who say they were tortured by U.S. forces in custody in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Lucas Guttentag, attorney for the ACLU describing the torture allegations.
  • Michael Posner, executive director of Human Rights First.

Meanwhile, a major court ruling in another high-profile torture lawsuit was in the news this week. A 54.6 million dollar verdict against two retired Salvadoran generals accused of torture in their home country two decades ago was reversed this week by a federal appeals court.

It is the second time the two generals–who have been living in Florida since 1989–have prevailed in cases involving human rights violations.

In November 2000, a federal jury found that José Guillermo García and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova couldn’t be held responsible for the murders of four American churchwomen who were raped and executed by Salvadoran soldiers in 1980. Jurors concluded the two men didn’t have effective control over their own military at the time.

But less than two years later, another jury found the military commanders were civilly liable under the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act in a lawsuit brought by a church worker, doctor and professor who fled to the United States after being brutalized by Salvadoran soldiers. That 54 million dollar verdict was reversed Monday when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that the victim’s claims failed to meet a 10-year statute-of-limitations rule.

  • Carlos Mauricio, one of the plaintiffs in the case. He was a professor at the University of El Salvador when he was detained in June 1983 and tortured for nearly two weeks at the National Police Headquarters. After coming to the United States, he obtained two Master"s degrees, in Molecular Genetics and Adult Education, from San Francisco State University, and a teaching credential. He teaches biology at Balboa High School in San Francisco.
  • Carolyn Patty Blum, one of the lawyers on the case. She teaches at Columbia University Law School and is senior legal adviser at the "":http://www.cja.org/.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: ACLU attorney Lucas Guttentag described the torture allegations.

LUCAS GUTTENTAG: We have clients, all of whom were in U.S. military custody at the time, who were cut with knives, who were severely beaten, who were sexually abused and humiliated, who were put in excruciating, painful conditions with their arms behind their back, pulled up by chains, something that you expect to see only in a cartoon of torture, who were locked in coffin-like boxes and who were threatened with mock executions at repeated times.

AMY GOODMAN: Also at the news conference, Michael Posner, executive director of Human Rights First.

MICHAEL POSNER: We are here today asking U.S. federal courts for relief for two reasons. The first is to end the practice and policy of torture. The United States was founded on the simple principle that all people by virtue of their humanity have inalienable rights under law. Torture and calculated cruelty, inflicted as official policy, the kind of abuses suffered by our clients, cannot be reconciled with this principle. Such conduct strips people of their dignity and deprives them of their humanity. It is the opposite of a regime of rights under law.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Human Rights First, Michael Posner. Meanwhile, a major court ruling in another high profile torture lawsuit was in the news this week. A $54.6 million verdict against two retired Salvadoran generals accused of torture in their home country 20 years ago, reversed this week by a federal appeals court. It’s the second time the two generals, who have been living in Florida since 1989, have prevailed in cases involving human rights violations. In November 2000, a federal jury found José Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova couldn’t be held responsible for the murders of four American church women, who were raped and executed by the Salvadoran soldiers in 1980. Jurors concluded the two men didn’t have effective control over their military at the time. But less than two years later, another jury found the military commanders were civilly liable under the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act in a lawsuit brought by a church worker, doctor and professor who fled to the United States after being brutalized by Salvadoran soldiers. That $54 million verdict was reversed Monday when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled the victims’ claims failed to meet a 10-year statute of limitations rule. We are joined on the phone right now by Carlos Mauricio, one of the plaintiffs in the case, a professor at the University of Salvador when he was detained in 1983 and tortured for nearly two weeks at the national police headquarters. He now teaches biology at Balboa High School in San Francisco. We’re also joined by one of the lawyers in the case, Carolyn Patty Blum. She teaches at Columbia University Law School, senior legal adviser at the Center for Justice and Accountability. Carlos Mauricio, we are going to begin with you. Can you tell us what happened to you in 1983, and your response to this ruling?

CARLOS MAURICIO: Well, what happened to me in 1983, that I was kidnapped in front of my classroom. A special unit of the army, a death squad came for me in the evening of June 1983. They beat me up when I was in my classroom, took me away. I was blindfolded and handcuffed, and took me to a place that I didn’t know, where I was kept for about three weeks. I was tortured in that place. I was blindfolded, so I didn’t know who tortured me. But later the Generals Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Guillermo Garcia were found responsible for what happened to me, and I believe, I truly believe that they were responsible. A jury made by seven women and three men found them responsible. It was in 2002 in Florida in West Palm Beach. It was a federal court. The jurors believed that they were responsible, and we agreed with them. We agreed — everybody agreed that they were responsible, and the jury found them responsible. That is very important, because now I have been told that in their appeal, the judges has turned down that situation, but what is important right now is that this is not the final decision, of course. We have the right to appeal, and we’re going to do it. We have 21 days to do it, and we’re going to make first a revision of the decision. This is not a final decision. But what is important right now is that we proved — we did it, that those generals, they are responsible for the torture of thousands of people in El Salvador and also responsible for the genocide carried out against the Salvadoran population. That’s very important. I believe that in the new appeal that we’re going to make soon, the case will be on our side again. We are going to win in that case but, sorry for repeating myself, what is important right now is that we prove that those — a jury found them responsible, and the appeal that they made is based in the technical situation that doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that they were found responsible for North American jury in 2002.

AMY GOODMAN: Carolyn Patty Blum, lawyer at Columbia University Law School, the meaning of the Appeals Court overturning this? And what are your legal plans?

CAROLYN PATTY BLUM: Well, I would echo what Carlos just said in the sense that the decision of the 11th Circuit, United States Court of Appeals, is on a narrow, technical, legal basis, which is the concept of statute of limitations, and examines in detail when — what circumstances exist for tolling or saying that the statute of limitations doesn’t apply in a particular situation. It doesn’t detract in any way from the findings of the court and of the jury that the generals were legally responsible for the torture of the three plaintiffs in the particular case. And as to the ruling itself, it is a very, very narrow, grudging construction of the circumstances under which the statute of limitations should be tolled. One of the things that I find so surprising and really appalling about the decision is that it shows little appreciation for the kind of case that this is. These statutes, the Alien Tort Claims Act, which was just affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, and the Torture Victim Protection Act, are statutes about piercing the veil of secrecy on human rights abuses and ending the impunity of perpetrators. And therefore, the fact that the defendants were at the pinnacle of a system of state repression in El Salvador for the entire decade of the 1980s and depended on lies, deceit and secrecy to maintain their power and to maintain the repression against the Salvadoran people is clearly a factor that went into why it would have been impossible to bring a case against the generals until they came to the United States and a period of time had passed after peace had been achieved in El Salvador.

AMY GOODMAN: Carolyn Patty Blum and Carlos Mauricio, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

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