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Guardsmen Convicted In Slayings of Two Americans Freed

December 30, 1987

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) _ Two former soldiers convicted of gunning down two American land reformer advisers and a Salvadoran official were quietly released last week under a new amnesty law, a prison official said Wednesday.

The U.S. Embassy said it was ″appalled and outraged″ at the move and said American aid to improve El Salvador’s judiciary would be reviewed.

The former guardsmen were serving 30 years for the murder in 1981 of Michael P. Hammer, 39, of Potomac, Md., and Mark David Pearlman, 36, of Seattle, who were helping the government with a controversial land reform program, and Jose Rodolfo Viera, 39, head of the Salvadoran Agrarian Institute.

The release was granted under an amnesty law that is part of a Central American peace plan.

Vitelio Escobar, the official in charge of security at Mariona Prison outside San Salvador, said in a telephone interview that former national guardsmen Jose Dimas Valle and Santiago Gomez Gonzalez were set free Dec. 19 on orders from the judiciary.

Their lawyer, Luis Arevalo Diaz confirmed it.

The three men were eating at the Sheraton Hotel coffee shop in San Salvador on Jan. 3, 1981, when gunmen burst in and shot them to death. The two guardsmen were sentenced in February 1986.

In quick succession this month, the 5th Penal Court approved a petition by Arevalo Diaz that the two men be freed on grounds that they committed a political crime, and the Second Penal Appeals Court rejected an appeal from Attorney General Roberto Giron Flores to block the release.

″We are appalled and outraged at the court’s decision rejecting the appeal ... given the situation, we plan to review the level and types of assistance we are providing to the Salvadoran judiciary,″ the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

For the past year, the United States has been helping El Salvador reform its judiciary with a one-time $9 million grant. The program is part of a wider effort to help the government in its 8-year-old war against leftist guerrillas.

The embassy statement ″particularly questioned″ the appeal court’s decision, which it called ″rapid and unusual″ since it was issued one day before the judiciary recessed for the year-end holidays.

In a telephone interview, Arevalo Rivas claimed his clients were prosecuted for what he called ″a political crime.″

The embassy statement argued otherwise, claiming ″the case was tried as a common crime and (the two men) were convicted under purely common criminal statutes.″

The two courts worked quietly on the case and officials often refused to answer reporters’ questions on the subject of amnesties.

Five former national guardsmen serving 30 years for the December 1980 murder of four American religious workers and four guerrillas under indictment for the slaying of four U.S. Marines in June 1985 are in jail and have not received pardons or amnesty.

The peace plan that Duarte and four other Central American presidents signed last August aims to end the civil war in El Salvador, a leftist guerrilla war in Guatemala and the U.S.-supported Contra war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.

Besides amnesties for political prisoners, the plan calls for cease-fires, democratic reforms and an end to outside aid to rebel groups.

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