Victims of El Salvador's bloody civil war say they are ready to tell a U.S. court about the torture they endured and the deaths they witnessed more than two decades ago.
Trial begins in Memphis federal court Monday on a lawsuit against a former Salvadoran Army colonel, Nicolas Carranza, who has lived a quiet life in Memphis since 1985. Carranza is accused of torture, extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity for letting soldiers under his command torture and kill civilians who were regarded as enemies of El Salvador's military-dominated government in the 1980s.
"This is a first opportunity for our clients to finally have a chance to say what happened to them, to explain to a jury and to the world," said Matthew Eisenbrandt, a lawyer for the Center for Justice and Accountability.
The lawsuit was filed under the Alien Torts Claims Act, which allows U.S. courts to assess damages in human rights violations abroad. The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Carranza, who has declined talking about the allegations, denies any wrongdoing. He has been an American citizen since the early 1990s. Calls to his lawyer were not returned.
The lawsuit, filed by seven current or former Salvadorans, says Carranza commanded military and police units that took part in a "deliberate reign of state terror" with the "widespread and systematic" use of torture and murder.
In a pretrial ruling, Judge Jon McCalla found that claims of torture or witnessing wrongful deaths by at least four of Carranza's accusers were valid.
"Experts estimate that 10,000 to 12,000 unarmed civilians were assassinated in 1980 alone," when Carranza was in charge of his country's top security forces, the suit says.
Eisenbrandt said he expects the trial to last up to three weeks and to include testimony from torture victims and experts on El Salvador's 12-year civil war. One of the first witnesses is expected to be Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador.
"We have to start from the beginning and let the jury know what was happening in El Salvador at the time," Eisenbrandt.
The suit says Carranza was Vice Minister of Defense and Public Security for El Salvador from October 1979 to January 1981 and director of the Salvadoran Treasury Police from June 1983 to April 1984.
News reports from the time describe the Treasury Police as one of the least disciplined of El Salvador's security forces. Thousands of civilians were arrested during the war, and many who were taken away by military or paramilitary forces were killed.
Peace accords at the end of the war led to an amnesty that bars legal action in El Salvador against suspected war criminals.
Eisenbrandt said the lawsuit is the only way his clients have of going after Carranza "to get a finding from a court that he's responsible. That's the most important thing."
The San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability in 2002 successfully sued two former Salvadoran generals in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Eisenbrandt said Carranza's whereabouts were discovered during the litigation of the Florida lawsuit.
When the Memphis suit was filed, Carranza was making no attempt to hide. His telephone number was listed and real estate records were filed in his name.
He and his wife, Norma, who have several children and grandchildren in the United States, have been described by neighbors as quiet and friendly, AP reported. V.A.