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U.S. Judge Approves Extradition of Former Salvadoran Colonel

In a ruling that revisits one of the most notorious events of El Salvador's brutal civil war, a United States federal judge has ordered the deportation of a former Salvadoran colonel accused in the murder of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her teenage daughter.

Spain, not El Salvador, sought the extradition of the former officer, Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, to put him on trial in Madrid. Mr. Montano, 73, along with 18 other former military officers originally indicted by a Spanish judge, have remained free under an amnesty law passed a year after the war ended in 1992.

But now the ruling moves the prosecution of the case a crucial step closer to a courtroom.

In her decision on Thursday, Judge Kimberly A. Swank of the United States District Court in the Eastern District of North Carolina, agreed with the Spanish evidence that showed that Mr. Montano was present at a meeting of the military high command that ordered the murders, which were carried out by an elite Salvadoran unit trained by the United States military.

"A government official who acts in collaboration with others outside the scope of his lawful authority," she wrote, "may reasonably be considered a member of an armed gang under the Spanish terrorist murder statute."

In the early hours of Nov. 16, 1989, members of the unit entered the grounds of the Central American University in San Salvador and ordered the rector, the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, and five other priests into a garden in front of their house where they were killed. The housekeeper, who worked with another Jesuit community, and her daughter were killed because they were witnesses.

Father Ellacuría was trying to broker peace between the military-backed government and leftist rebels at the time. But many in the high command viewed him with suspicion, believing him to be sympathetic to the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.

Judge Eloy Velasco of Spain's National Court has been investigating the case since 2008 under Spain's universal jurisdiction law, which allows Spain to prosecute certain crimes not committed on its territory. Five of the six Jesuits, including Father Ellacuría, were Spanish.

But after Judge Velasco issued an indictment in 2011, the arrest warrants languished in El Salvador, where all of the defendants live, with the exception of Mr. Montano.

He had moved to Massachusetts, where he was arrested on immigration violations after the indictment was issued. He was then moved to a detention center in North Carolina. Last year, as his sentence was ending, the Justice Department, acting on behalf of Spain, sought his extradition.

Almudena Bernabeu, a lawyer with the Center for Justice and Accountability, a human rights group based in San Francisco that first filed the case in the Spanish court, said Judge Swank's decision was a precedent for extraditing somebody charged under a law of universal jurisdiction.

The judge ruled that "Spain has the jurisdiction, that it has enough evidence, that all the requirements are there to extradite to Spain," said Ms. Bernabeu, who represents the family of one of the slain priests, Father Ignacio Martín-Baró.

In December, Judge Velasco issued new warrants seeking the arrest of 16 defendants in El Salvador. Since the original indictment named 20 officers, two have become state witnesses and one died as the indictment was issued.

The National Civil Police has acknowledged that it has the warrants but has failed to carry them out, asking for legal guidance. This week, El Salvador's security and justice minister, Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, said that contradictory legal decisions still remained to be clarified.

Of the legal confusion that has stalled the arrests in El Salvador, Ms. Bernabeu said, "We put all the institutions upside down."

[Source: By Elisabeth Malkin, The New York Times, Mexico City, 05Feb16]

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