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US aid request for Salvadorean police tangled in human rights

The Reagan administration is asking Congress to approve nearly $7 million in police aid for El Salvador, rekindling the debate over that nation's human rights record. Although the $6.8 million ``reprogramming'' request has been attacked by human rights groups and temporarily blocked by a congressional committee, lawmakers are expected to authorize the assistance.

If approved, the funds would be transferred from the military aid budget for El Salvador: $5.6 million would be spent on vehicles, radio equipment, and weapons, and $1.2 million on training, according to an administration official.

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This would represent more than double the $3.1 million in police aid sent to El Salvador in fiscal 1986. That money paid for 100 vehicles, 300 radios, and US-supervised training of 1,400 police.

Now the administration plans to use five of the 55 United States military advisers stationed in El Salvador to train about 2,000 members of the country's National Police, Treasury Police, and National Guard, said the official.

Police aid to El Salvador is available under a congressional amendment to a 1974 law banning all US aid to foreign police forces. That legislation came in the wake of revelations that US-trained police in countries such as Vietnam and Iran were engaged in the torture and murder of political dissidents.

But the lawmakers passed a two-year waiver to the ban after four US marines and several bystanders were killed by leftist rebels at a caf'e in June 1985.

The only stipulation placed on the aid was that the administration had to certify that El Salvador was making progress toward eliminating human rights abuses.

The administration made the certification Nov. 25 when it notified several congressional committees of the aid request. The Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee placed a hold on the request, however. ``We want to know what kind of progress has been made'' in human rights, says Michael Marek, an aide to subcommittee chairman David Obey (D) of Wisconsin.

Despite the reservations of Representative Obey and other lawmakers, a source close to the subcommittee predicts that aid ``probably will be approved.'' He notes that Congress has been more disposed to back US policy in El Salvador since the election of Jos'e Napole'on Duarte as president and because the number of political killings has declined.

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Human rights groups such as Americas Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America strongly oppose police assistance. ``It's nonsensical,'' argues Aryeh Neier, vice-chairman of Americas Watch. ``Training doesn't have anything to do with human rights practices.''

While Mr. Neier and others agree the number of El Salvador's human rights violations has fallen since the early 1980s, they say that problems remain.

The aid opponents pointed to a study by El Salvador's nongovernmental Human Rights Commission that shows that 99 percent of the 434 political prisoners arrested in the first eight months of 1986 reported having been tortured. In addition, El Salvador's Decree 50 permits holding suspects incommunicado for 15 days, during which time police are authorized to extract extrajudicial confessions, which are acceptable as evidence in court.

Elliott Abrams, assistance secretary of state for intra-American affairs, argues that a ``hands-off policy'' would be ``stupid.'' ``The way to improve human rights performance and the professionalism of a police force is to work with it,'' he says.

But Neier and other human rights advocates say that ``professionalization'' is impossible as long as the police are under the control of the armed forces, and as long as there is no truly independent judiciary.

In 1984 the Agency for International Development launched a five-year program to improve the administration of justice in El Salvador, responding to what AID described as the judicial system's ``dysfunction'' and ``breakdown.''

The AID project is still far from succeeding, according to Reagan administration critics. ``There is no functioning judicial system in El Salvador,'' says an aide to Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, a strong critic of foreign police aid.

A fundamental concern of many aid opponents is the Salvadorean military's alleged ``lack of will'' to undergo basic reforms. The failure to prosecute those responsible for past crimes is cited as an example of this lack of will, many human rights activists say.

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