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US distorting Salvador rights picture?

A recent cable from the United States Embassy in San Salvador to the US State Department distorts the true picture of human rights in El Salvador. So charges the director of the agency whose statistics are cited in the embassy cable as proof that the rights situation here is improving.

The embassy document, which was leaked to The Christian Science Monitor, cites statistics compiled by Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the Salvadorean Roman Catholic archdiocese, to show that the numbers of killings by death squads has declined and that most civilians killed in warfare are people who travel or live with leftist guerrillas.

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The embassy cable says that Tutela Legal's ''figures on civilian deaths that occur during military engagements or operations (mostly of guerrilla 'masas') now account for almost 80 percent of TL's (Tutela Legal's) overall reported total of civilian victims of political violence.'' Rebel ''masas,'' the cable explains, are ''civilians who travel or live with the guerrillas and provide them logistical or other support.'' The cable describes the ''masas'' as ''something more than innocent bystanders.''

''The cable is deceptive,'' says the Tutela Legal's director, Maria Julia Hernandez. She confirms that there appears to be a decline in killings linked to death squads, but disputes the embassy's contention that the statistics show that most civilians killed recently belong to the civilian ''masas.''

''While much of what it (the cable) presents is correct, what it omits distorts the reality of the human rights situation,'' says Ms. Hernandez.

The cable, which has been given to some US congressmen, appears to have been used in recent congressional debates on the human rights situation in El Salvador. In the weeks just ahead, Congress is weighing whether to increase aid appropriations to El Salvador.

''I find this to be a very spurious charge,'' Ms. Hernandez says of the cable's contention that most civilians killed are closely associated with rebels. ''In El Salvador there are no forests or remote areas where guerrillas can hide or remove themselves from the general populace. To assume that those killed in conflictive zones are 'masas' is a charge your ambassador has no right to make. I think no one can know which civilians killed are 'masas,' and which are not, and I think it is evident from testimonies we have that many civilians killed by the Army are clearly not from the 'masas.' ''

Tutela Legal's director continues, ''We find little decrease in abductions, disappearances, and murders as a whole, although we recognize that activity by the so-called death squads has declined and declined markedly in the last two months. Obviously, however, if there are still disappearances and murders it makes little difference to the people of El Salvador whether they are done by the death squads or the internal security forces.''

''I do not think then it is fair to say that abductions have gone down or up, indeed they appear, from what we have, to be about the same,'' Hernandez says. She adds that the number of civilians killed in the last six months of 1983 appears to have gone up.

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According to Tutela Legal, there were 451 civilians abducted by heavily armed men in civilian clothes between May and December 1982. In 1983, there were 938 civilians abducted by heavily armed men in civilian clothes. (Tutela Legal does not have statistics for the first six months of 1982 because it only began monitoring human rights abuses in May of that year.)

''We have not published figures for the first four months of 1982, so would not presume to make a comparison on abductions,'' Hernandez says.

Tutela Legal statistics show the number of civilians killed in the last six months of 1983 by the Salvadorean Army, security forces, and clandestine paramilitary squads was 2,615. This number represents an increase over the first six months of 1983, as well as an increase over the last six months of 1982. Killings of civilians by government forces in noncombat situations averaged about 120 per week in the last three months of 1983, Tutela Legal says. Government forces have killed more than 38,000 civilians since 1979, it adds.

Death squad murders have never accounted for a large share of civilian deaths , Tutela Legal contends. The agency says the Army is responsible for an average of 76 percent of the civilians killed per month. If paramilitary squads, or so-called ''informal death squads,'' are included in the figures, the number rises to 99 percent of civilians killed.

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