SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — The striking down of El Salvador's amnesty law is giving hope to thousands that justice for human rights abuses committed during the Central American country's 12-year civil war could now be within reach.
Others, though, fear the Supreme Court's scrapping of the law that protected the military, paramilitary groups and guerrilla fighters — some of whom are in the current government — could tear open old wounds in the still polarized country.
Even President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who was part of the command structure of the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front during the war, could theoretically face prosecutions, legal experts said Thursday.
On a 4-1 vote Wednesday, the Supreme Court overturned the amnesty law, which had been enacted in 1993 five days after a truth commission's report blamed the military for the vast majority of abuses during the war. The ruling made clear that amnesty was lifted for not only those accused of directly committing crimes, but also the command structures of the military and guerrilla forces who gave the orders.
"Today is an historic day for human rights in El Salvador," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director for Amnesty International. "By turning its back on a law that has done nothing but let criminals get away with serious human rights violations for decades, the country is finally dealing with its tragic past,"
The Truth Commission that investigated the war's atrocities determined that more than 75,000 people were tortured, killed without justification or forcibly "disappeared." It estimated that government forces, paramilitary groups and death squads were responsible for 90 percent of the crimes and guerrilla fighters for just over 3 percent.
The amnesty law kept countless cases from being prosecuted. Among them was the 1980 assassination of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero. The Truth Commission said the mastermind was Maj. Roberto D'Abuisson, the now dead founder of the conservative Republican Nationalist Alliance, which governed El Salvador until 2009.
Another pivotal case was the 1989 slaying of six Jesuit priests — five Spaniards and one Salvadoran. In 1991, a Salvadoran court determined the amnesty law prevented punishment of nine members of an elite battalion for the crime.
The same army unit was allegedly responsible for the 1981 massacre of 1,000 inhabitants of the El Mozote area. In 2012, the Inter-American Human Rights Court condemned the incident and ordered El Salvador's government to pay reparations to the victims' families.
With the amnesty law ruled unconstitutional, "I think we're going to start to see many more cases," said Carolyn Patty Blum, senior legal adviser at the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, a group that has been pursuing cases against Salvadoran war crime perpetrators in courts outside the country since 1998.
"My hope is that we will see a dramatic change and that these historic crimes will start to be investigated much more seriously and much more deeply, rigorously," she said.
Blum, who is currently involved in a case against high-ranking Salvadoran officials in a Spanish court for the killing of the six priests, urged U.S. President Barack Obama to order a large declassification of U.S. documents related to El Salvador's war that could aid in prosecutions.
Others criticized Wednesday's ruling.
Ulises del Dios Guzman, a former Supreme Court justice, said in a local television interview that the decision "opens a spectrum of possibilities that could be really serious for the country" and could even reach the president.
"This drags us to the past and an unharmonious situation that could cause real confrontation and recriminations," he said.
The defense minister, Gen. David Munguia Payes, called the ruling "an error" that could lead to a "witch hunt" and turn the country upside down.
Miguel Montenegro, director of El Salvador's Human Rights Commission and himself a victim of torture by government forces during the war, stood on the other side, calling the ruling "a joy."
It "is an appropriate medicine to heal the wounds that remain open, bleeding. It makes us happy; it's an opportunity to get justice, to end the impunity," Montenegro said.
Both opinions were present in the streets of the capital.
"I don't understand this well, but I believe that it's fair to imprison all of the murderers," said Roberto Romero Castro, who was waiting to catch a bus.
Alfonso Castillo, selling ice pops in the street, was wary. "This is going to bring problems," he said. "They should leave it be because everyone is going to want to send to prison those who killed their relatives."
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.