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Test for El Salvador

There is a long way to go before the government of El Salvador earns the confidence of the US Congress that it is genuinely embarked on social and political reform. So every glimmer of progress, however limited, should be noted and encouraged.

Such a glimmer is the approval by the Constituent Assembly of an amnesty law that may free hundreds of political prisoners and also offer amnesty to guerrillas who turn themselves in within 60 days. This is a reform long advocated by Washington, and it is a credit to the dogged efforts of the United States ambassador in San Salvador, Deane Hinton, that it has finally come about.

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Though the law is limited, it seems to have some good features: A three-member commission will be able to free at once any political prisoner accused of crimes punishable by less than four years, or any political prisoner if there is insufficient evidence against him. Guerrillas will turn themselves in to civilian, not military, authorities and, if they choose to remain in El Salvador, will be protected by a new Commission for Rehabilitation of the Amnestied.

The law will have to be tested in practice, of course. There is still such extensive government violation of human rights in El Salvador - including almost daily slayings at the hand of death squads - that many observers are skeptical. And while the United States applauds the amnesty reform, in the same breath it points a finger at the failure of the Salvadorean judiciary to dispense justice. The State Department has sharply criticized a court's dismissal of charges against three people implicated in the murders of two Americans and a Salvadorean land-reform leader at the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador more than two years ago; the three, two officers and a businessman, are well-connected to Salvadorean military and judicial figures. (The US is also concerned about delay of the trial of five former national guardsmen charged with murdering four American churchwomen.)

Will the El Salvador government respond to these concerns? In general will it show enough steady progress on human rights to persuade US lawmakers that El Salvador deserves more American aid to prosecute the war against the guerrillas? The new amnesty law, if honestly implemented, and reform of the corrupt judicial system could do much to help dispel the skepticism.

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