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Trial for murders of US churchwomen expected in May

The trial of the accused murderers of four American churchwomen - which has been delayed repeatedly since the women were killed in El Salvador in 1980 - now is expected to take place in May.

Since the beginning, the case has been highly controversial and full of irregularities. Key evidence has been lost and withheld from investigators. United States government public assurances that investigations were on track contradict private remarks that El Salvador was doing little to find the killers. There are allegations that Salvadorean officials covered up evidence that high military figures ordered the murders.

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The families of the women charge that even the US has not spoken the truth about key aspects of the investigation.

In one sense the legal proceedings in the murder case, even if agonizingly slow, are a step forward for El Salvador because they mark the first time accused members of Salvador's Army or state security forces will face a court on charges of murdering civilians.

But they also illustrate the sad state of the judicial system in this country. Military leaders and the Salvadorean oligarchy, after 50 years of control over the political process, had emerged as a group free from legal constraints. Many of its members use violence as a method of social control. They have reduced the judicial process to a system dominated by corruption and intimidation.

The military traditionally is unwilling to investigate or prosecute members of its own caste. This can be seen in the slow process of investigations into the murders of foreigners like the US churchwomen and in the case of American labor advisers Michael Hammer and Mark Pearlman, who were assassinated along with a Salvadorean labor official while dining in San Salvador in January 1981. It can also be seen in the slow investigations into the murder of San Salvador's Roman Catholic Archbishop, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, assassinated in church in March 1980. More than 38,000 Salvadoreans have been victims of political violence since 1979.

That the church women are American is doubtless a factor in the judicial movement on this case. US President Jimmy Carter briefly suspended military aid to El Salvador over the case. Congress has required the President to certify there has been progress on the case as a condition of US aid to El Salvador. And earlier this month several senators sought to bar further military aid to El Salvador until the alleged killers of the US women are tried.

Five low-ranking National Guardsmen were charged in April 1981 with the murders of the four women - Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, and Dorothy Kazel - who were abducted while driving from the national airport into San Salvador on Dec. 2, 1980. The guardsmen were incarcerated.

But irregularities in the case have led the families of the women and the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, which represents the families, to charge high-ranking Salvadoreans with a cover-up in the case.

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''There is direct evidence in the court's record,'' says Mike Posner, the executive director of the Lawyers Committee, ''that there were higher orders to carry out the killings and that after the murders a cover-up took place. This evidence is being ignored, along with evidence linking the commander of the Army in Chalaten-ango Province, Col. Ricardo Pena Arbaiza, to threats against two of the murdered women.''

The lawyers have also found the role of the US in the case to be disturbing.

''The US government has been more concerned about protecting its clients, the Salvadorean government, than pursuing justice for the US citizens killed here,'' says Bill Ford, brother of slain Maryknoll nun, Ita Ford. ''The fact is there never has been a real investigation.''

A US Embassy spokesperson denies this allegation.

''From the time the churchwomen were killed in December 1980 the US Embassy has been pursuing this case with great interest. Thousands of man-hours have gone into tracking this case. For the two years that I have been here,'' this official says, ''not a week has come up when there were not high-level discussions about the status of the case. It has been of overriding concern to us.''

But lawyers for the families of the churchwomen point out that while the State Department said the Salvadorean government was making satisfactory progress on the case in December 1980 and January 1981, the US Embassy in January cabled to the State Department that the Salvadorean government had ''made no serious effort to investigate the killings of the murdered women.''

To support their claim of a Salvadorean cover-up, the families of the women point to several testimonies - including that on Aug. 9, 1982, by former National Guard member Julio Cesar Valle Estinoza, who contends that one of the accused men, Sgt. Luis Antonio Colindres Aleman, told him that the five guardsmen charged with the murders were acting under ''superior orders.''

''When we confront the State Department with these accusations, we are told they are not true,'' says Ford. ''Yet at the same time various important pieces of evidence are being withheld from us by the US government, and other pieces of evidence, we are told, have disappeared.''

The embassy official quoted above says: ''I cannot comment on the charges of a coverup involving high-ranking Salvador-ean officials. But I can say that the report by Judge Tyler (initiated by the US government) . . . looked at every aspect of this case. We cannot make the report public at this time because of the influence it might have on the case. Once the trial has ended, however, the report, which we consider exhaustive, and which looked at all kinds of allegations, will be released.''

Another official close to the case says,''Well, I have no comment (about a cover-up). The important thing is to get the trial over.''

The FBI has refused to release results of its investigation into the case to the lawyers of the women's families, claiming that it is an ongoing investigation. The State Department has refused to make a number of documents available to the lawyers, claiming US ''security interests'' could be jeopardized.

The State Department told the lawyers that disclosure of certain evidence ''would impair our relations with El Salvador and make more difficult our capability to enlist Salvadorean cooperation in future similar cases.'' It also claimed release would ''impair our relations with ranking Salvadorean officials.''

The FBI inquiry includes ballistic tests, fingerprint examinations, polygraph tests, a laboratory report on a ''red splotch'' lifted from the van, and transcripts of interviews with prominent witnesses, including a key witness whom the FBI interviewed in Los Angeles in February 1982 and whose whereabouts are known only to the FBI.

The Lawyers Committee has brought suit in federal court, challenging the State Department's refusal to release the documents. The action is pending in the Southern District of New York.

But separately, after heavy pressure from Congress, the State Department in June 1983 appointed Harold R. Tyler Jr. to determine whether the US government was doing everything it could to advance a prosecution of the accused slayers of the US churchwomen.

Tyler's report, which arrived at the State Department Dec. 3, 1983, was immediately classified.

State Department official Joseph F. Becelia told the families the report would not be made available because such an action might ''be raised by the defense in an effort to discredit the prosecution's case.''

''They classified it (the report),'' Ford says, ''the same day the Salvadorean defense minister . . . was in Washington to go before Congress and ask for military assistance.''

In 31/2 years, three judges have presided over the process and two of the defense lawyers have resigned.

X-rays of the womens' bodies, fingerprints taken from their van, and autopsy reports have been ''lost'' by Salvadorean officials, the lawyers for the womens' families say. ''We were told the records were lost while being transported between government ministries,'' Ford says.

Defense Minister Casanova is suspected by the Lawyers Committee of playing a major part in the effort to cover up the high-ranking officials' links to the murders. He was head of the National Guard when the murders took place.

Casanova said he ordered an investigation into the killings the day after the murders. Five days later, with no apparent investigation attempt, he said, ''The murders of the nuns could not have been the work of the government.''

The guardsmen were not arrested until US investigators gave Salvador information implicating them.

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