Stolen children: Crime and immunity in El Salvador

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In March 2015 a US immigration court ruled that Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova, 77, can be deported from the United States to El Salvador, because “he participated in or concealed torture and murder by his troops” during the 1980 – 1992 war.  He is likely to appeal the ruling.

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According to a UN commission of inquiry, over 75,000 people were killed during the war, more than 90% by the Salvadoran army and allied paramilitary forces, and 1000s of children disappeared. Some have been found in mass graves, but the vast majority simply vanished.

However, even if Vides Casanova returns to El Salvador, he could still avoid prosecution there. The country’s 1993 Amnesty Act guarantees immunity from prosecution to perpetrators of human rights crimes during the 12 years of military repression.  As long as this law remains in force, it denies any possibility of justice for victims and their families.

In the last fifteen years, similar laws shielding war criminals from prosecution have been overturned in Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Guatemala, and partially in Chile. But in El Salvador, a succession of governments have failed to repeal the amnesty law. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has demanded several times that it be repealed, and Amnesty International continues to urge the same.

As it has always done, the Salvadoran military apparatus refuses to open its records, and no government has yet been willing to force it to do so. Lack of public access to these records not only shields perpetrators from justice, it also complicates greatly the work of Pro-Búsqueda (‘for the search’), a small Salvadoran grassroots organization run by the families of children who disappeared during the war.  Many of the children, it turns out, were kidnapped by soldiers and given or sold into adoption, primarily in North America and Europe.  Since 1993, Pro-Búsqueda’s mission has been to find them, and where possible to reunite them with their families of origin.

Ester Alvarenga, coordinator of Pro-Búsqueda explains why access to military records is so vital: “The soldiers who took children know perfectly well what they did with them, and who they gave them to. All our investigations show how the children were taken; you can follow their tracks to a certain point, but only the army can say what comes after. Some soldiers never gave the children to a public or private institution but adopted these children themselves. These are the most difficult ones to trace.”

On April 14, 2015, Amnesty International issued this statement: “The Amnesty Law of El Salvador is not in conformity with international law, and is an affront to the thousands of victims of human rights abuses and their families. It is time to repeal it and allow all cases of torture, rape, killings and enforced disappearances committed during the conflict of the 1980s to be investigated, and all those suspected of being criminally responsible to be brought to justice.”

More detail on the Vides Casanova case here.

For the Pro-Búsqueda story, including the use of DNA analysis to connect disappeared children with their families of origin, see Bold Scientists. Read an excerpt here. Scroll down to chapter 5, Stolen children.

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Free Dr Tarek Loubani & John Greyson: Open letter to Daryl Kramp, Member of Parliament

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As residents of Prince Edward-Hastings riding, we call on you to exercise your influence and responsibility in the following matter of urgent concern to all of us.

As of October 3, Canadian citizens Dr Tarek Loubani and John Greyson have already been imprisoned for 48 days by the military government in Egypt.  Recently their imprisonment was extended once again, for an additional 45 days.  They have not been charged with any offence.

In contravention of international law, the Egyptian military regime claims the right to hold them without charge for as long as two years.

We are encouraged to hear that Prime Minister Harper told Canadian media on September 29, “In the absence of charges, Dr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson should be released immediately.”  This is a step in the right direction, but given the degree of injustice and life-threatening circumstances it’s not enough.  The Prime Minister should be speaking directly to his counterpart in Egypt, demanding that these two Canadian citizens be released immediately and allowed to return safely to Canada.

Dr Tarek Loubani is an emergency room physician in London, Ontario; John Greyson is an award-winning film and video maker.  Both of them teach at universities in Toronto and London.  Each is highly respected in his field.

On the night of their detention, Dr Loubani was doing what his professional oath as an MD requires of him, providing emergency medical care to people who’d been attacked by soldiers in a public protest.  John Greyson was doing what he intended to do on this trip, documenting Dr Loubani’s work.

Amnesty International has called for their immediate release.  More than 145,000 people have signed an international petition demanding their immediate release.  Their release has also been demanded by the Ontario & Canadian Medical Associations, the United Church of Canada, the Presidents of York, Ryerson, Queen’s and Wilfred Laurier Universities, and many other organizations and individuals.

We call on the Prime Minister of Canada to make the same demand, immediately and directly to the appropriate Egyptian authorities.