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Salvadoran Establishment Strikes Back at U.N.

By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador

Under mounting pressure from El Salvador's right-wing, President Alfredo Cristiani on Thursday criticized a U.N. report that blamed civil war crimes on state security forces, saying the findings will not contribute to healing this country's wounds.

In his first public comments on the report by the U.N.-appointed Truth Commission, Cristiani said the investigation painted an incomplete picture that dredges up ugly memories and prevents reconciliation.

"We believe the Truth Commission report did not respond to the desire of the majority of the Salvadoran people, which is to forgive and forget ... a very painful past that brought so much suffering to the Salvadoran family," the president said in a prepared statement he read to reporters.

Cristiani said his government would comply with the commission's recommendations, but only within constitutional limits. His remarks appeared to suggest he would not follow some of the commission's key reform proposals, including an overhaul of El Salvador's inept and corrupt judicial system, seen as the crucial centerpiece to rebuilding a post-war society here.

Cristiani reiterated his call for a blanket amnesty for human rights violators named in the report, which was released at the United Nations on Monday after a seven-month investigation.

The ruling party was scheduled to introduce the amnesty law in the National Assembly this weekend, despite protest from the left and some opposition parties who maintain that the cited abusers should be held accountable before they are pardoned.

Release of the report, a mammoth document that blamed most of the civil war's political murder on government forces and allied death squads, has handed Cristiani an increasingly angry army and spread discontent within his own political party, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance.

The Truth Commission called for about 50 senior army officers, including the defense minister and his two deputies, to be fired. It also called for the dismissal of all 14 members of the Supreme Court as a key step to the overhaul of the entire judicial system.

Cristiani said he would comply with the recommendations that were within his power to execute. He is constitutionally barred from touching the Supreme Court, and he has repeatedly argued that purging the military must be done gradually, to preserve stability.

"It is important to analyze the path we should take when the report only speaks of certain cases and mentions certain people," he said. "We do not think it is just to apply certain measures, be they judicial or administrative, to some people, (and not to) others."

Under terms of U.N.-brokered peace accords that formally ended El Salvador's 12-year-long civil war last year and set up the Truth Commission, Cristiani had agreed to abide by the commission's findings.

But increasingly, his party and military officers, active and retired, are speaking out against the report, calling it biased, without foundation and unconstitutional.

Defense Minister Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce, while questioning the commission's authority and credibility, offered his resignation 72 hours before the report was officially released. The report says he ordered the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter. He denies the accusation.

It remains unclear whether Cristiani would accept Ponce's resignation.

Supreme Court President Mauricio Gutierrez Castro, meanwhile, took the opposite approach.

"Only God can remove me from my position -- by taking my life," he said in refusing to step down.

Gutierrez Castro, who said the commission was an illegitimate body, was one of those most severely criticized in the report. The commission hit him repeatedly for his "scarcely professional conduct" and numerous efforts to obstruct justice.

The justice is a prominent member of Cristiani's party, known by its initials in Spanish ARENA. Politicians from ARENA, including Salvadoran Vice President Francisco Merino and San Salvador Mayor Armando Calderon Sol, were quick to criticize the report and to rush to the defense of the party's founder, the late Roberto D'Aubuisson.

D'Aubuisson was named in the report as a principal leader of right-wing death squads. It said he ordered the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

In full-page newspaper advertisements running throughout the week, ARENA blasted the "reckless accusations ... based on slander" that the report leveled against "our beloved immortal leader, Roberto D'Aubuisson" whose "biggest crime was to awaken the Salvadoran people and prevent the triumph of international communism" in El Salvador.

The U.N. Security Council praised its work Thursday and called on Salvadorans to follow its recommendations to reform the military and judiciary. The council also urged further investigation of the death squads and their operations.