Wall memorial
Luis Romero  /  AP
Julio Cesar Mendez, 42, reads a poem written on a wall at the "El Despertar" Catholic home of retirees in San Salvador, where a priest and four youths were assassinated by the army at the beginning of El Salvador's civil war in January 1979.
updated 10/31/2005 9:53:13 PM ET 2005-11-01T02:53:13

A former Salvadoran Army colonel was in a U.S. court Monday to defend himself against accusations that his soldiers tortured and killed civilians during El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s.

A civil lawsuit filed against Nicolas Carranza, 72, accuses him of crimes against humanity. A 10-member jury was seated Monday afternoon, with testimony scheduled to begin Tuesday.

“This is a first opportunity for our clients to finally have a chance to say what happened to them, to explain to a jury and to the world,” Matthew Eisenbrandt, a lawyer for the Center for Justice and Accountability, said in advance of Monday’s court session.

Carranza, who has declined talking about the specific allegations, denies wrongdoing. He became an American citizen and has lived in the Memphis area since 1985.

The lawsuit, filed by five current or former Salvadorans, says Carranza commanded military and police units that took part in a “deliberate reign of state terror” with the “widespread and systematic” use of torture and murder.

Torture claims ruled valid
In a pretrial ruling, Judge Jon McCalla found that claims of torture or witnessing wrongful deaths by at least four of Carranza’s accusers were valid.

Thousands of civilians were arrested during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, and many who were taken away by military or paramilitary forces were killed.

The suit says that experts estimate that 10,000 to 12,000 unarmed civilians were assassinated in 1980 alone, while Carranza was in charge of his country’s top security forces.

Carranza was vice minister of defense and public security for El Salvador from October 1979 to January 1981 and director of the Salvadoran Treasury Police from June 1983 to April 1984, it says. News reports from the time describe the Treasury Police as one of the least disciplined of El Salvador’s security forces.

Eisenbrandt said he expects the trial to last up to three weeks and include testimony from torture victims and experts on the civil war. One of the first witnesses, he said, is expected to be Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador.

Legal action barred in El Salvador
Peace accords at the end of the war led to an amnesty that bars legal action in El Salvador against suspected war criminals.

Eisenbrandt said the lawsuit is the only way his clients have of going after Carranza “to get a finding from a court that he’s responsible. That’s the most important thing.”

The lawsuit, also handled by the Nashville law firm of Bass Berry & Sims, was filed under federal laws allowing U.S. courts to assess damages in human rights violations abroad. The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

The Center for Justice and Accountability, based in San Francisco, successfully sued two former Salvadoran generals in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 2002.

Eisenbrandt said Carranza’s whereabouts were discovered during the litigation of the Florida lawsuit.

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