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Torture on Rise in Salvador

IN the latest round of Salvadoran peace talks in Costa Rica this week, ending government repression is high on the leftist rebels' agenda. Despite assurances by President Alfredo Cristiani that human rights are being respected, diplomats and human rights groups say torture by the Salvadoran police and military is on the rise ``Arrests, disappearances and torture have all increased recently,'' says Maria Julia Hernandez, director of the Roman Catholic Church's human rights office Tutela Legal.

President Cristiani is unable to stop the abuses, these sources say, because the powerful Salvadoran military acts with considerable autonomy. In fact, human rights experts say the increase in arrests and torture began at the beginning of the year, predating Mr. Cristiani's June 1 inauguration.

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Diplomats trace the rising repression to the military's inability to stem the increased activity of the guerrilla units that carry out sabotage in the major cities.

``Of course they're being repressive, but what's their alternative from their point of view if they want to end it,'' says a Western diplomat.

In 1974, the US Congress ended all aid to foreign police forces after revelations that US aid had gone to regimes routinely practicing torture. But following the June 1985 Zona Rosa killings here of four US Marines, the Reagan Administration persuaded the Congress to pass an exemption that allowed the resumption of police aid to El Salvador, arguing that the security forces were becoming more professional.

Although infamous in the early 1980s - when the three security forces each had death squads operating out of their intelligence sections, according to Western diplomats and human rights organizations - the Salvadoran police gradually substituted more selective repression and more sophisticated interrogation techniques, such as sleep deprivation.

Defense Minister Rafael Larios calls such charges part of a ``campaign of subversive disinformation.'' However, an official of the government's Human Rights Commission privately says that ``torture is the biggest problem we have with the armed forces.''

Electric shocks and the capucha - a hood that can be used for suffocation - were used on some of 61 members of the Fenastras union arrested Sept 18. Several rapes and beatings were also reported.

Union and student leaders have also reported arrests, beatings, and torture at the hands of police and security forces in the last few months.

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``The problem is structural. The military have more power than the president,'' says Tutela Legal Director Hern'andez. ``The president has ... no control over the military despite his formal title of commander-in-chief. The war, the repression is controlled by the military. It was this way with [ex-President Jos'e Napoleon] Duarte, and it's that way with Cristiani, and will be with whoever is president as long as the structures don't change.''

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