Human rights law clinic aids torture survivors
Students help bring action against two Salvadoran generals suspected in 1980 murder of nuns

By Fernando Quintero


Law Professor Carolyn Patty Blum

Law Professor Carolyn Patty Blum, right, discusses litigation against two Salvadoran generals with second-year law student Natasha Fain. “Justice & the Generals,” a PBS documentary highlighting the case, premieres at 11 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 21 on KQED TV.
Noah Berger photo

14 February 2002 | In 1980, the bodies of four American churchwomen were exhumed from a shallow grave in civil war-torn El Salvador. The women – three Catholic nuns and a lay missionary – had been kidnapped, raped and murdered. An investigation led to the conviction of five Salvadoran National Guardsmen. Families of the victims — convinced that the orders to kill came from high up in the military — found enough circumstantial evidence to bring two Salvadoran generals to trial.

Now, with assistance from Boalt Hall’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, a group of Salvadoran torture survivors is set to prosecute the same two generals. More than a dozen Boalt students are working on the case, in collaboration with the firm of Morrison and Forester, local Florida counsel and the Center for Justice and Accountability.

These historic cases signal a radical change in the way human rights violations are redressed and provide disturbing insight into the political forces that can shield the military from any legal responsibility. They are the subject of a 90-minute PBS documentary, “Justice & The Generals,” which premieres at 11 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 21 on KQED TV.

Professor Carolyn Patty Blum, director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic, said the clinic was asked in 1998 to help determine whether a lawsuit, on behalf of the four American women killed, could be brought in the United States against the two Salvadoran generals.

“The trigger men were convicted in El Salvador, but the higher-ups were never indicted or convicted. Then, new information came to light. Declassification of government documents and interviews pointed to two men now living in the United States,” Blum explained.

Jose Guillermo Garcia had been minister of defense in El Salvador from 1979 to 1983, during an era of intense repression. General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova was director of the Salvadoran National Guard before being elevated to director of defense.

“There is no doubt that these guys are two major players,” said Blum. “They were responsible as commanders for troops perpetrating some of the most severe persecution of civilians.”

During the civil war, the violence in El Salvador resulted in 75,000 deaths and disappearances, most at the hands of government-backed forces.

With Blum acting as consultant, a case was developed against the two generals. In an unusual legal move, these historic cases are being decided not in international war tribunals, but in U.S. federal court.

To build a case against the generals, a law that’s been on the books for more than 200 years — the Alien Tort Claims Act — was invoked. In recent years, foreign victims of human-rights abuses have cited a provision of the act to bring actions under the U.S. law.

Victims are also citing a more recent federal statute, the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows them to confront not only the perpetrators of torture and murder but their superiors.

Armed with these laws, the plaintiffs have brought civil actions against the Salvadoran generals. In the first trial, the generals were found not liable in U.S. Federal District Court, a decision that has been appealed by the families. The second case will go to trial after the appeal of the first case is decided.

Blum’s clinic students are working on the torture survivors’ case in a number of capacities — taking witness’s statements, assisting plaintiffs in their preparation to testify in court, researching the background of potential defense witnesses, and analyzing past and contemporary cases on the law of command responsibility. Currently, law student Natasha Fain, under Blum’s supervision, is helping prepare for the cross-examination of the defendants at trial.

Although Blum said the two generals are now living “comfortably” in Florida, financial recovery may prove difficult. Assets may be hidden.

“But our overall goal is to jolt these men and give a wake up call to human rights abusers around the world that the United States is not a sanctuary for them,” she said.

For information on the documentary “Justice & The Generals,” including timelines, biographical information, legal background, polls and an online debate, see


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