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Spanish court opens 'Jesuit Massacre' case

  • Story Highlights
  • Two human rights groups filed petition, arguing justice was not done in El Salvador
  • Activists accuse El Salvador's former president, Alfredo Cristiani, of involvement
  • None of the 14 officers have formally been charged with a crime
  • Two military officers were convicted of murder in 1991 but pardoned in 1993
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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spain's National Court opened an official investigation into 14 former military officers in El Salvador accused of killing six priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in November 1989.

Alfredo Cristiani

Items of slain Spanish Jesuit Ignacio Ellecuria at the Universidad Centroamericana museum in San Salvador

Reports at the time said they were tortured and then shot. The event, which came to known as the "Jesuit Massacre," became one of the most notorious episodes of El Salvador's 12-year civil war. Some 75,000 people died in the conflict, which pitted leftist guerrillas against the U.S.-backed conservative government.

Most of the slain Jesuits were born in Spain. They were killed at their residence at prestigious Central American University, in El Salvador's capital, San Salvador.

Two military officers were convicted of murder in 1991 but were pardoned in 1993 under an amnesty law approved by the National Assembly.

The case was taken to Spain's National Court because of its involvement in other high-profile human rights cases. Two human rights groups filed the petition, arguing that justice was never done in El Salvador.

Human rights lawyer Manuel Olle called the announcement Tuesday "another step in the fight against impunity."

The activists also accused El Salvador's former president, Alfredo Cristiani, of involvement in what came to be known as the "Jesuit Massacre." The court did not include him in the case, but it reserved the right to add him later to the list of defendants.

Former Defense Minister Humberto Larios and former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Rene Emilio Ponce were among those placed under investigation.

None of the 14 officers have been formally charged with a crime.

In 1998 the same Spanish court issued an arrest warrant for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998, while he was in a London hospital. For the rest of his life, he fought legal battles -- first in England and later in Chile -- to avoid convictions.

The Spanish court has also taken on human rights cases from other countries, including Argentina and Guatemala, testing a relatively new international legal principle known as Universal Jurisdiction.

It contends that if justice for human rights abuses is not served in the country where the crime occurred, then a court in another country can intervene.

Spain and El Salvador have an extradition treaty, opening up the possibility that the central American country could send the former officials to Madrid to stand trial.

If they are ever tried and convicted by a Spanish court, they could serve up to 30 years in prison.

Ignacio Martin-Baro, one of slain Jesuits, spoke to CNN shortly before he was killed about the chilling effect of the long-running Salvadoran civil war.

"We have become used to violence," Martin-Baro said. "We have become used to living in a very dangerous world. We have learned to live, accepting death, extraordinary abnormal death into our lives."

For years, the extreme right in El Salvador had accused the Jesuits of siding with the leftist guerrillas, according to a CNN report shortly after the killings. Uniformed troops were seen searching the living quarters of the priests at Central American University two days before they were killed, CNN reported.

The Spanish court accepted the case presented to it by the Spanish Association for Human Rights, but has not yet decided if the second organization which petitioned it last year, the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, will be allowed to participate.

CNN's Al Goodman contributed to this report.

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