Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Historic human rights office closed

Tutela Legal, the heroic legal and human rights office of the Archdiocese of San Salvador was abruptly closed by the archbishop on September 30 with no advance warning to its employees or anyone else.

Tutela Legal was founded by slain archbishop Oscar Romero in the late 1970s to document the death squad murders and other human rights abuses in the country.  As described here, its work was incredibly important during those years:
Tutela Legal was organized during 1978 as part of the efforts by the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, and his successor, Arturo Rivera y Damas, to create commissions and organizations to defend human rights. Hernandez said that in the late 1970s and 1980s, human rights activists in El Salvador knew they needed to have strong, scientific evidence as the basis to denounce abuses. At the time, gathering this kind of information was particularly dangerous because many people who worked for these groups, reported violations, or tried to take legal action were either threatened, assaulted, or murdered by death squads. 
Tutela Legal went to sites of supposed human rights violations and collected evidence as well as relied on testimony from survivors. Hernandez pointed out that since El Salvador was a signatory to the Geneva Conventions (international agreements that outlawed torture and established human rights precedents), Tutela Legal had a framework of standards and law for carrying out its investigations. 
Another important innovation described by Hernandez was Tutela Legal's monitoring of El Salvador's main guerilla force, the FMLN. Hernandez said that Romero and Rivera y Damas urged human rights groups to also focus on the guerillas, not just on the army.
Since the end of the civil war, Tutela Legal has continued to advocate on behalf of victims of human rights abuses, including advocating for a repeal of the 1993 amnesty law and acting as an advocate for the victims of the El Mozote massacre before the InterAmerican Court for Human Rights.  

According to a report in El Faro, the staff of Tutela Legal arrived for work on Monday morning and found private security guards and the doors shut.   Employees were informed that the decision had been made to close the human rights office because it no longer had a reason to exist.   One by one they were given a chance to gather their things and then leave.   No one saw their sudden firings coming.  They were told the decision to close the office was irreversible.

President Funes expressed concern over the closing, saying he did not know the reason for the closure, but that it made it appear that the Catholic church was no longer accompanying the people in their search for justice.  

In a statement about the closing, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) wrote:

WOLA staff worked closely with Tutela in those difficult years, and we have deep respect for the institution and its work. We are surprised by the abrupt decision by the Archdiocese of San Salvador to close the institution; the doors were shut and the staff dismissed without warning on September 30.
Tutela maintained an extensive archive of the testimonies it received and the evidence it gathered about human rights abuses both during and after the civil war. These archives include information critical to both human rights researchers and criminal investigators examining some of the still-unresolved human rights cases of the recent past. WOLA hopes and expects that the Archdiocese will carefully protect these archives and make them available to researchers and investigators, in keeping with the Church's long tradition of defending human rights and human dignity and the proud history of Tutela Legal.
 In a country where impunity for crimes past and present continues to be an enormous burden on the populace, it is a very sad event to see the silencing of this tireless force for human rights.

Diario CoLatino has posted photos on Facebook of a protest outside the offices of the archdiocese complaining of the closure of Tutela Legal.


Tom said...

This is incredibly sad. I can't help but feel it isn't a coincidence as it so closely follows the ruling of the supreme court on impunity. The Archbishop has spoken out against removing the impunity laws. I do hope the files are safeguarded and given to other human rights workers. Perhaps the Instituto de Derechos Humanos at the Universidad Centroamericana (IDHUCA) can take control.

Carlos X said...

To flesh out Tom's point a little bit, the Supreme Court recently accepted a challenge to the 1993 Amnesty Law that bars prosecutions of human rights cases, including notorious massacres like El Mozote and other infamous war crimes like the assassination of Archbishop Romero. Tutela Legal was the primary driving force for many of those cases. The suspicion among some is whether by shutting down Tutela, the Archbishop has killed the prospect that those matters would be investigated because Tutela represented the victims in some of the cases and has all the files. Some are suggesting that the Archbishop is doing the bidding of some dark, unseen forces who wish to deny justice to the victims at all costs. Giving the Archbishop the benefit of the doubt, his timing and communication here, as with the destruction of the Llort mural in 2011, makes it difficult to understand his reasoning.