Jury Absolves Soldier in Journalist Slaying
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) _ A jury has absolved an army private in the killing of a TV journalist, but colleagues of the slain soundman on Thursday accused troops of pressuring frightened jurors to find the soldier innocent.
Others called it another failure of the Salvadoran judicial system to punish the military, which has been blamed for thousands of summary executions, kidnappings and torture of suspected government opponents the past decade.
President Alfredo Cristiani acknowledged Thursday the presence of 30 soldiers at the brief deliberations Wednesday might have swayed the jury in what high-ranking military authorities had called an ″open and shut case″ against Pvt. Jose Orellana.
The members of Orellana’s unit, the elite Arce battalion, entered the courthouse in the eastern provincial capital of San Miguel as the jury began deliberating.
The five-member jury then found Orellana innocent of murdering Channel 12 soundman Mauricio Pineda at a military roadblock during 1989 elections.
Marcos Antonio Guevara, who covered the trial for Channel 12, said the jurors were afraid of the soldiers.
″They were telling the jury in so many words that if they delivered a guilty verdict, they would have to contend with the Arce battalion,″ he said. ″The jurors live there. They leave the court alone and have their skins to think about.″
Referring to the soldiers’ presence, Cristiani told a news confernce: ″It could have had an effect. Certainly, in many cases, the reaching of a decision completely free from outside influence is difficult.″
The prosecution said it would appeal.
Channel 12 news director Narciso Castillo said the absence of the defendant at the trial and the intimidating presence of soldiers at the courthouse was grounds for overturning the verdict.
Pineda was shot at a military roadblock March 19, 1989. He was part of a crew in a pickup truck covering that day’s nationwide presidential and legislative elections.
Two other journalists were killed and another was seriously wounded during the election weekend.
One died in a cross-fire during combat between leftist rebels and government troops. The other was killed by air force paratroopers at a roadblock near the capital. His colleague was seriously wounded in the same incident. The paratroopers have yet to go to trial.
El Salvador’s highest ranking military authorities admitted Orellana fired on the Channel 12 pickup without provocation or justification. They said the case was the most open-and-shut of the slayings of the journalists during the elections.
Raul Beltran, a Salvadoran journalist next to Pineda when he was shot, said of the verdict, ″This kind of justice is disappointing.″
Though the armed forces have been blamed for thousands of executions, kidnappings and torture in the 10-year-old civil war against leftist guerrillas, no officer has been convicted - or even tried - for a crime of human rights abuse.
Four officers, including a colonel, are among eight army men charged with murder in the Nov. 16 slaying of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.
According to testimony from those charged, the priests were killed by a unit of the elite U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion.
Atlacatl’s commander, Col. Oscar Leon Linares, on Wednesday bade farewell to his troops before leaving for a new post. Leon was promoted June 1 to military commander of Morazan Province.
According to testimony, the Jesuits - widely respected academics - were killed because many high-ranking army officers considered them guerrilla ideologues.
Far from mentioning the Jesuit massacre as a black mark on the Atlacatl record and cautioning his troops against repetition of such action, Leon told them in his speech:
″You must remember that in front of us we have a terrorist combatant ... but behind that combatant there are intelligent sectors that use any kind of calumny and other tricks to gain ground.″