El Salvador court mulls extradition of nine Jesuit massacre suspects

Ex-officers surrender to a military brigade to seek legal protection from Spanish "persecution"

The Salvadoran Supreme Court on Tuesday began studying the extradition cases of nine Salvadoran retired officers who gave themselves up to a military command over the weekend after Spain's High Court charged them in connection with their alleged participation in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests at the height of El Salvador's civil war.

In a bid to seek legal protection, the nine former officers, including ex-Defense Minister Rafael Humberto Larios, surrendered late Sunday to a special military brigade in San Salvador late Sunday. They told a justice of the peace, who appeared to inform them of the charges they were facing, that the Madrid court proceedings were illegal because the retired officers were immune from prosecution.

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The officers said they were seeking protection from the Spanish High Court's "persecution."

High Court Judge Eloy Velasco issued international arrest warrants on May 30 against 20 former military officers, charging them with terrorism, murder and crimes against humanity. Last week, he ordered them to appear before him on September 14.

The murders took place on November 16, 1989 when military officers entered the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) and shot dead the rector Ignacio Ellacuría; fellow priests Amando López, Juan Ramón Moreno, Segundo Montes and Ignacio Martín Baró, as well as the Salvadoran Joaquín López y López, and the cook Elba Julia Ramos and her 16-year-old daughter Celina.

According to the UN Truth Commission report, the officers met secretly to order the massacre of the Jesuits who were publicly advocating a peaceful solution to stop the bloody war. Known as the "Jesuit massacre," the case is one of the most notorious episodes that took place during El Salvador's 12-year civil war.

"We know there exists a persecution against them, and that is the reason they decided to surrender to a military unit," said Eduardo Cardoza, a defense lawyer for the retired Generals Juan Rafael Bustillo and Larios, who was also serving as defense minister at the time of the massacre.

"They and their families feel persecuted. To say with certainty that it is the police, we don't know. But who else can it be?" the lawyer asked, as reported by the Guatemala City daily El Mundo.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Belarmino Jaime told reporters that lawyers had presented a battery of habeas corpus motions in favor of the former officers.

Salvadoran Justice of the Peace Carlos Calderón met with the former military officers on Sunday night to formally inform them about the Spanish petition for extradition, but they told him that the case was investigated and closed in El Salvador and that they enjoy immunity under the country's Amnesty Law.

Calderón told them that it would be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether to put them on trial or extradite them to Spain.

Besides Larios and Bustillo, the retired officers who turned themselves in were identified as Francisco Helena Fuentes, Juan Orlando Zepeda, Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, Antonio Ramiro Ávalos Vargas and Tomás Zarpate Castillo.

In a statement, the former officers called on the government of President Manuel Funes to "lodge an energetic protest to the Kingdom of Spain for a clear violation of national sovereignty and Judge Eloy Velasco Núñez's interference in affairs that only fall under the jurisdiction of our Salvadoran state."

The retired officers said the case has already been investigated and convictions were handed down. Two military officers were convicted of murder in 1991 but were later pardoned in 1993 under an amnesty law approved by the National Assembly- the same law the former officers say gives them immunity.

Interpol has issued red alerts for all the 20 former officers wanted by Judge Velasco. One of the suspects, another former defense minister, René Emilio Ponce, died last May.

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