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Judge orders reopening of El Salvador military massacre case

FILE - In this Oct. 23, 1992 file photo, forensic anthropologist Claudia Bernard, from Argentina, brushes dirt from human remains, in El Mozote, El Salvador. A human rights advocate said Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016 that Judge Jorge Guzman Urquilla has granted reopening a probe into the El Mozote massacre. A postwar truth commission concluded that the army massacred at least 500 people in El Mozote and surrounding villages in three days in December 1981. Victims’ rights advocates put the number closer to 1,000. (AP Photo/Michael Stravato, File)
October 01, 2016 - 6:44 PM

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - A judge in El Salvador has ordered prosecutors to reopen a probe into one of the most notorious massacres in recent history: the army's slaying of hundreds of people in the village of El Mozote.

Human rights advocate Ovidio Mauricio told The Associated Press on Saturday that Judge Jorge Guzman Urquilla had accepted the request filed by his organization and two other groups. The decision was based on a July ruling by the country's Supreme Court that overturned a law granting amnesty for war crimes during El Salvador's 1979-1992 civil war.

A postwar U.N. truth commission concluded that the army massacred at least 500 people in El Mozote and surrounding villages in three days in December 1981. Victims' rights advocates put the number closer to 1,000. Overall, at least 75,000 people died in the small nation's civil war.

Researchers say the El Mozote villagers were largely evangelical Christians who had tried to remain neutral in the conflict. Because of that, they decided not to flee when rebel sympathizers nearby ran away from an army advance. But soldiers suspected them of rebel sympathies in any case.

Many of the bodies were dumped in the interior of a small church and burned. Former government human rights prosecutor David Morales said that in one grave alone, forensic experts found "136 skeletons of girls and boys, with an average age of 6 years."

The army — and the U.S. government that had trained the Atlacatl battalion involved in the killings — initially denied any massacre had taken place.

Following the new ruling, Morales sent a tweet saying that "the forensic evidence of the El Mozote massacre is overwhelming," and added, "The use of amnesty was always unconstitutional."

The Supreme Court ruling overturning the amnesty has been welcomed by national and international human rights groups, but it has upset both former military men and the current government, which grew out of the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Both sides fear their allies could face prosecution and say the decision could lead to social conflicts.

The move to reopen the El Mozote probe was led by Mauricio's Dr. Maria Julia Hernandez Legal Defence agency, the Center for Justice and International Law and the Association to Promote Human Rights of El Mozote.

The U.N. truth commission report put responsibility for the massacre on Col. Domingo Monterrosa, commander of the Atlacatl battalion, operations chief Col. Armando Azmitia and six other officers. Monterrosa and Azmitia died when a bomb went off in their helicopter in 1984.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that El Salvador should pay reparations for the victims and the government in 2012 accepted the court ruling and apologized for the massacre.

News from © The Associated Press, 2016
The Associated Press

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