Court: Generals must pay $54 million


Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
MIAMI - A federal appeals court reinstated a $54.6 million verdict against two retired Salvadoran generals accused of torture during the civil war in their home country two decades ago.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed Wednesday its earlier decision to toss out the 2002 judgment against Gens. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 67, and Jose Guillermo Garcia, 72.
The appeals court had ruled in February that a statute of limitations had expired before the generals were sued. The court said the three torture victims who filed the lawsuit failed to prove unfair circumstances prevented them from bringing their case forward before the 10-year statute expired.
But Wednesday, the court said "extraordinary circumstances" did exist in the torture case and the verdict should be reinstated. The original West Palm Beach jury found Vides Casanova and Garcia ignored massacres and other acts of brutality against civilians during the war.
The victims - a church worker, doctor and professor who fled to the United States after being brutalized by Salvadoran soldiers - sued under the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act. The law allows U.S. courts to assess damages against perpetrators of human rights abuses committed abroad.
The court commented on the significance of the Victim Protection Act and another law, the Alien Tort Claims Act.
"The remedial scheme conceived by the TVPA and the ATCA would fail if courts allowed the clock to run on potentially meritorious claims while the regime responsible for the heinous acts . . . remains in power, frightening those who may wish to come forward from ever telling their stories," the appeals court wrote.
During the 2002 trial, the generals' attorney described El Salvador in the 1980s as a chaotic country, where the generals could not control the actions of all the soldiers under their command.
The 12-year civil war in El Salvador, which cost the lives of some 75,000 people, ended in 1992 when the government and leftist rebels signed a peace treaty.
The victims sued in 1997 over torture suffered between 1979 and 1983. Despite the 14-year delay, a federal judge allowed the case to go forward, siding with the plaintiffs who argued the generals created an atmosphere of dictatorship, torture and repression.
The former generals' attorney, Kurt Klaus, said he can still file another appeal asking for a rehearing with the Atlanta appeals court. He said his clients could easily have been served before 1992 because they had been living in the United States since 1989. They both currently live in South Florida.
James Green, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he was elated with the new ruling.
Green said he expects a court hearing soon to determine whether the generals can pay and if a payment schedule can be established.

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