For Immediate Release: October 8, 2013
Washington, D.C. – Human Rights First expressed deep concern about the decision of the Roman Catholic Church of El Salvador to shutter Tutela Legal, an important human rights and legal aid office of the Church in San Salvador. Tutela Legal has played a key role in investigating, documenting, and seeking justice in the most egregious atrocities committed during El Salvador’s civil war. Human Rights First worked closely with Tutela Legal on several seminal human rights cases, which include the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper, and her daughter, as well as the 1980 killing of four American churchwomen.
The Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador abruptly closed the center without first notifying employees, who arrived at work on October 1 to find padlocks and guards at the center’s entrance.
The timing of the closure is suspicious, coming on the heels of a decision last month by the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court to hear appeals that could overturn parts of a 1993 amnesty law for human rights violators during El Salvador’s civil war. If that law is overturned, information held by Tutela Legal would be key to prosecuting perpetrators of atrocities.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled last year that the 1993 amnesty law cannot be used to protect those tied to the December 1981 slaughter of hundreds of peasants, including children, at El Mozote in northeastern El Salvador. Tutela Legal was instrumental in pushing that case and others through the Inter-American system.
Tutela Legal was founded by the then archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero. When Archbishop Romero was assassinated by gunmen linked to the military as he gave Mass, Tutela Legal investigated the case.
Tutela Legal also investigated the military’s 1989 killing of six Jesuit priests, one of whom was the rector of San Salvador’s University of Central America. Tutela Legal’s archives contain more than 50,000 cases of human rights violations and 80 percent of the cases documented in the 1993 U.N. Truth Commission Report. It also holds information on other cases related to violence in El Salvador.
Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes expressed concern about the decision to close Tutela Legal, saying that “The Catholic Church, and especially the archbishop of San Salvador, are [sic] not determined to accompany the just causes of the people.”
“We call on the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador and in Rome to ensure that the vital work of this seminal institution can continue,” said Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First. “We urge the Church to take steps immediately to guarantee the preservation and integrity of all of the legal archives of Tutela Legal and all records of human rights violations and other cases. The Church should ensure that victims have access to any information related to their cases.”