A federal judge ruled that a former El Salvadoran military captain is liable for $10 million in damages for his role in the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, whose killing symbolized death squad terrorism during El Salvador's civil war.

The hearing marked the first time anyone was tried for the killing of the popular archbishop. He broke church silence on the war by denouncing right-wing death squads for killing suspected supporters of Marxist rebels, human rights lawyer Almudena Bernabeu said Saturday.

Bernabeu, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Center for Justice and Accountability, said the decision against former captain Alvaro Rafael Saravia sends an important message, even if no money is collected.

Saravia, believed to have moved to the United States in the mid-1980s, did not answer the charges in court or hire an attorney. His last known address was in the central California town of Modesto, she said.

"This is important, because Romero was a huge person in El Salvador," Bernabeu said.

Rights groups and church officials in El Salvador said others should be tried in that crime and in others committed during a 12-year civil war that cost at least 75,000 lives.

"This is a sign that justice will come in El Salvador -- it's a ray of hope," said Maria Julia Hernandez, a legal officer for the archbishop of El Salvador.

The San Francisco-based human rights group sued Saravia in September 2003, using two laws that allow civil lawsuits against defendants in the United States when the crime was committed outside the country.

The lawsuit charged that Saravia provided the sniper with a gun, payment and transportation.

"To be liable for the killing of a human being, you don't have to pull the trigger," Judge Oliver Wanger said.

During the five-day hearing in Fresno, the group presented declassified U.S. documents and other evidence linking former major Roberto d'Aubuisson and Saravia to the slaying, Bernabeu said.

D'Aubuisson, who founded El Salvador's ruling Arena party and died of cancer in 1992, was widely believed to have been one of the organizers of the death squads.

A U.N. truth commission linked Saravia and others to Romero's death, but a 1993 amnesty law passed immediately afterward protected them from prosecution.

The Roman Catholic Church has taken the first step toward the canonization of Romero, who was an outspoken critic of state-sponsored violence and who is revered for his support of the poor and of those working for social change.