Who Should Have Custody of the Testimony of El Salvador’s Victims?

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Since its founding in 1982, Salvadoran human rights victims, their families, and other witnesses have trusted their testimony to Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the Catholic Church’s Archdiocese in El Salvador. They had confidence that Church leaders such as Archbishop Rivera y Damas (who replaced Oscar Romero after his assassination in 1980) and María Julía Hernández (the long-time head of Tutela Legal) would preserve the crucial evidence they provided so that one day the criminals who committed wartime atrocities could be brought to justice. They also felt safe turning to Tutela Legal, believing that their testimony would remain confidential.

On September 30, those Salvadorans who had confided in Tutela Legal were shocked to learn that Archbishop Escobar Alas had disbanded the organization, locking the doors and dismissing the staff without prior notice. Since then, he has changed his explanation for doing so several times – but not provided any evidence to support any of his reasons.

This surprise move came nine days after the Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice ruled that it would admit a challenge to the 1993 Amnesty Law that has prevented prosecution of wartime human rights abuses – a legal action  brought by Tutela Legal in coalition with other nongovernmental organizations. Just when justice began to appear within reach, the church dashed the hopes of the victims and their families by throwing the future of this evidence into doubt. To complicate matters, the Attorney General has raided the archives, raising concerns about their confidentiality.

Amnesty International has joined organizations such as the Washington Office on Latin America, Pax Christi International, and, of course, a wide array of Salvadoran organizations in calling on both the Catholic Church and the Salvadoran government to guarantee the integrity of this important evidence. In a statement issued on October 24, Amnesty emphasized that any decisions concerning the future of Tutela Legal’s archives must be made with the active participation of those Salvadorans who provided the testimony contained therein. Amnesty also called for the participation of the Salvadoran government’s Office of the Human Rights Counsel (which is headed by former Tutela Legal attorney David Morales) in such decisions, as well as any inventory of the archives conducted by Salvadoran authorities.

Ultimately, it is up to the brave Salvadorans who provided their testimony to decide whom they trust to preserve their memories, to continue to seek justice, and to respect their confidentiality.

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