Berkeley, CA – A Florida jury in a federal civil trial yesterday awarded $54.6 million to three Salvadorans who proved that they were detained and brutally tortured by Salvadoran security forces between 1979 and 1983.
Juan Romagoza, Neris Gonzalez and Carlos Mauricio sued former Salvadoran generals José Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova. The victims were subjected to various forms of torture–including beatings, electric shocks and rape–by Salvadoran national guardsmen and police under the command of the two generals, who both retired to south Florida in 1989.
University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall) Professor Carolyn Patty Blum, director of Boalt’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, worked with clinic students to assist in the suit, which was based on two federal laws that allow torture victims to seek redress in U.S. courts, even if the offenses occurred elsewhere.
“Our goal was to jolt these men and give a wake up call to human rights abusers around the world that the United States is not a sanctuary for them,” says Blum.
The suit was brought under the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Claims Act. The latter act, adopted in 1789, gives survivors of egregious human rights abuses, wherever committed, the right to sue responsible persons in U.S. federal court. The Torture Victim Protection Act, signed into
law by President Bush in 1992, gives similar rights to U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike to bring claims for torture and extrajudicial killing. Under both laws, the perpetrator must be physically served with the lawsuit in the United States in order for the court to have jurisdiction.
“This is an important victory not only for our clients, but for the people of El Salvador, for Americans, and for the struggle against impunity everywhere,” says Sandra Coliver, a 1981 graduate of Boalt Hall and executive director of the Center for Justice & Accountability-the San Francisco-based group that initiated the lawsuit in 1999. “Our clients came forward because they wanted to speak out on behalf of the tens of thousands of civilians killed or tortured during El Salvador’s ‘dirty war,’ and to send a message of hope to future generations that no one is above the law, and that even the powerful can be held accountable.”
The award, $14.6 million in compensatory damages and $40 million in punitive damages, may prove difficult to collect, as the generals’ assets may be hidden. “We also hope that the generals will be deported,” states Coliver.
“I am pleased that justice has been done,” says plaintiff Neriz Gonzalez. “I joined this case to send a message of hope and to motivate people everywhere to continue the struggle for justice. This verdict provides an example of what can be done.”
The lawyers for the plaintiffs, all of whom volunteered their services, are James K. Green of West Palm Beach, and Peter Stern (a 1992 graduate of Boalt Hall) and Beth van Schaack of Morrison & Foerster LLP. They were assisted by Professor Blum and students of the International Human Rights Law Clinic.