updated 11/13/2008 6:31:44 PM ET 2008-11-13T23:31:44

Rights groups asked a Spanish court on Thursday to indict a former president of El Salvador and 14 ex-officials over the massacre of six Jesuit priests and two others during the Central American country's 1980-92 civil war.

The two groups — the Spanish Association for Human Rights and California's Center for Justice and Accountability — filed the lawsuit accusing former Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani Burkard of covering up the 1989 killing of the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter.

The lawsuit also seeks charges against the country's former defense minister, Rafael Humberto Lario, saying he was present at the meeting at which the massacre was ordered, the groups said.

Universal jurisdiction
The groups asked Madrid's National Court to consider the case under the principle of universal jurisdiction — which allows for the prosecution of crimes against humanity and other grave offenses such as terrorism, even if alleged to have been committed in another country.

Spanish magistrates have used the principle to go after current or former government leaders or terrorism suspects, even indicting al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden over the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But convictions have been rare.

The National Court could take months to decide if it will take up the El Salvador case.

The killings occurred during the country's civil war between leftist rebels and a U.S.-backed right-wing government.

On Nov. 16, 1989, members of an army battalion with orders to kill University of Central America rector Ignacio Ellacuria massacred the Spanish-born Jesuit, five other Jesuits, the housekeeper and her daughter.

International outrage
The massacre sparked international outrage and tarnished the image of U.S. anti-Communism efforts after it was found that some soldiers involved had received training at the former School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Georgia.

The Salvadoran army had regarded the Jesuits as subversives for urging a negotiated end to the war, which over 12 years left some 75,000 dead, the rights groups said.

The groups said Cristiani Burkard and the 14 other suspects should be charged with state terrorism, crimes against humanity and covering up a crime against humanity.

A trial over the massacre was held in El Salvador in 1991, but only two of the 10 defendants were convicted of murder and they were released early from their 30-year sentences under a 1993 amnesty, the groups said. Others convicted of lesser charges did not go to jail at all, they said.

"None of the people responsible for the crime has been brought to justice," the California-based group said, alleging irregularities in the Salvadoran trial.

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