SAN SALVADOR, DEC. 8 -- A judge today ordered an army colonel, three junior officers and five soldiers to stand trial within the next few months for the murders a year ago of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter.
This will be the first time a senior Salvadoran military officer has faced a jury trial in a human rights case. But Jesuit leaders, human rights groups and a number of U.S. congressmen say the investigation has not gone far enough.
Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides is accused of ordering a unit of elite government troops to murder the priests in November 1989 on the campus of the Jesuit-run Central American University in San Salvador. The murders occurred as the army was fighting off a massive rebel offensive in the capital.
Judge Ricardo Zamora said the accused would face trial for acts of terrorism as well as for murder. The terrorism charge was only added last month because prosecution lawyers feared there may not be enough evidence to convict Benavides for murder alone.
Bringing Benavides to trial means that the judicial investigation of the case is now closed. Jesuit leaders, human rights officials and U.S. congressmen have alleged that the military high command systematically tried to cover up details of the murders to protect other officers in the case.
In October, the U.S. Congress voted to withold half of El Salvador's $85 million military aid package. Lawmakers accused the military high command of blocking the investigation. The State Department said Friday it would speed up the release of $48.1 million in military aid due to El Salvador this year and next.
Lawyers here have also expressed fears that a fair trial is not possible in the charged atmosphere of the civil war.
"Some people in the army have always supported Benavides. What security would a jury have to convict him?" asked one lawyer involved in the case.
Judge Zamora has not yet set a date for the trial, but he said it should take place in the next few months.