Details of Salvadoran archbishop's death emerge in civil case.

Details of the death of an archbishop revered in Latin America for his defense of human rights emerged during the first day of a civil case in Fresno federal court against a retired Salvadoran Air Force captain.

The suit alleges that Alvaro Rafael Saravia, the right-hand man of San Salvador's conservative mayor at the time, conspired to kill the archbishop in March of 1980. It alleges the archbishop's death was an extrajudicial killing, a crime against humanity and a violation of international law and of federal statutes, the plaintiff's lawyers argued.

Saravia, a Modesto resident who has been linked to the archbishop's death by independent United Nations investigations has not hired any attorneys, or responded to the lawsuit filed by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability on behalf of one of Archbishop Oscar Romero's relatives.

The suit seeks to determine Saravia's liability, and to assess monetary damages, but attorneys on the case, and several Salvadorans attending the trial, said the real purpose of this hearing is to set the historical record straight.

"This is a validation for us, that this didn't go unseen," said Cecilia Contreras, a native of San Salvador who came to the trial with her mother and her four children. "It was a crime, he was shot, but the victims were all the people of El Salvador."

On March 24, 1980, in an afternoon mass so crowded some attendants remained outside listening to loudspeakers, Romero remembered the violent death of a peasant who had been organizing other workers, testified Rev. William Wipfler, an Episcopal priest who witnessed the killing.

As Romero consecrated the bread and the wine, raising them to the altar, a car pulled up in front of the chapel. Amado Garay worked for Saravia as a chauffeur, and was driving the car.

Garay cried several times during the deposition. He testified he could hear the priest's words as the car stopped, but said he did not know who the priest was yet .

He did know that the man he was transporting at Saravia's request was carrying a long rifle with a telescopic lens. Garay testified that as he crouched in the car, the man in his back seat fired one single shot into the church, then told him to drive away.

When he returned the sniper to the house where Saravia was waiting, Garay said they found Saravia listening to the news.

"Saravia said to the shooter, 'I think you killed him. The news said he died instantly,'" Garay testified.

About one month later, fearing for his life, Garay escaped to Nicaragua, and eventually to the United States.

This was a crime that was well documented - there are sound recordings, photos, and dozens of witnesses, and yet no one has been held accountable for this death, said the plaintiff's counsel, Nico Van Aeltstyn. The name of the plaintiff remains confidential. Judge Oliver Wanger agreed the fear of retaliation, even 24 years after the crime, is still too great.

Outrage over Romero's death grew as headlines announced the crime in newspapers around the world. About 100,000 people attended the archbishop's funeral, Aeltstyn said.

But attempts to take this case to court in El Salvador were repeatedly defeated. The party founded by then-mayor Roberto D'Aubuisson, who was linked by a U.N. truth commission to Romero's murder, is still in power in El Salvador. A general amnesty law prevents anyone involved in Romero's death and in thousands of others to face trial.

With the archbishop's death, there were no more avenues for a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the extreme right and the leftist forces in the country, and El Salvador descended into a bloody civil war that left 75,000 dead, historians have said.

"The violence really escalated," said Thomas Gumbleton, bishop of Detroit's diocese, who became directly involved with El Salvador in the 1980s as he accompanied victims of violence and those who had been threatened back into their villages.

"Any and all were vulnerable," Gumbleton said outside court.

The depositions will continue Wednesday with testimony by Atilio Ramirez Amaya, the Salvadoran judge initially assigned to investigate this case. Ramirez Amaya had to abandon the case after he suffered death threats, and was forced to flee the country with his family.

A deposition from Robert White, who was the American ambassador in El Salvador at the time of the killing, will also be heard, along with a deposition from a witness whose name remains confidential for security reasons.

The hearing will end Friday.

[Source: Juliana Barbassa, Associated Press, Fresno, Ca, 24Aug04]

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