By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. immigration judge has ruled that there are sufficient grounds to begin deportation proceedings against a former Salvadoran defense minister for his alleged involvement in torture and extrajudicial killings in the Central American country in the 1980s, a U.S. official confirmed on Thursday.
Judge James Grim in Orlando upheld deportation charges against retired General Eugenio Vides Casanova, who is accused of assisting and participating in the 1980 killing of four American churchwomen and the 1981 killings of two Americans and a Salvadoran land reform leader, among other civilians.
The ruling is the first time that a senior foreign military official has been held responsible in U.S. immigration court for rights abuses committed under his command, according to human rights lawyers.
Deportation proceedings could drag on for many months if Vides Casanova decides to appeal the ruling. His attorney did not answer a phone call seeking a response.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security confirmed that a judge had made a ruling in the case, but said immigration court rules did not permit discussion of the details until it is made public.
Lawyers for the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA), a human rights group involved in the case, said they were notified of the ruling by U.S. government officials, but had not yet been able to read it.
In a statement, the CJA praised the ruling saying it was "the first judicial affirmation of Vides' role in those horrendous crimes."
The CJA "is gratified that the U.S. government has undertaken this effort," the statement added.
Vides Casanova was defense minister during a brutal period of civil war in the 1980s between leftist rebels and U.S.-backed government forces. He retired and moved to Florida in 1989.
In 2002 a West Palm Beach jury returned a $54.6 million verdict against Vides Casanova and another defense minister on behalf of three survivors of torture. In 2009 the Department of Homeland Security announced its initiation of deportation proceedings, at the request of the CJA.
"There's a lot of people who have been knocking at the government's door about the presence of this guy in the U.S., and the need to do something about it," said Almudena Bernabeu, an attorney for the CJA.
(Reporting By David Adams; editing by Anthony Boadle)