In the late 1980s, as civil war broke out in El Salvador, the bodies of four American churchwomen were exhumed from a crude grave in San Salvador, the capital. The women — Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, nuns of the Maryknoll Congregation in New York; Dorothy Kazel, a nun in the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland; and Jean Donovan, a lay missionary from the Cleveland Mission — had been abducted, raped and murdered. Bill Ford, brother of Ita Ford, along with other relatives of the women spent 20 years investigating the murders of these women who were doing missionary work in El Salvador at the time of their murders. Initially the investigation led to the trial and conviction of five Salvadoran National Guardsmen.
But who was behind the murders? It was clear to Bill Ford that the Guardsmen were only triggermen. With the help of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now called Human Rights First) Ford set out to discover who ordered, paid for, directed and covered up the murders.
By the mid-1990′s with the war over and amnesty declared for all human rights abusers, declassified U.S. government documents revealed that the State Dept. had withheld information pointing to involvement at high levels of the Salvadoran military.
The new information allowed Ford and other relatives to bring a civil suit against two senior Salvadoran generals, Jose Guillermo Garcia and Eugenio Vides Casanova, minister of defense and head of the notorious National Guard at the time of the women’s murders. The generals had retired to Florida and now faced the families of the victims in a West Palm Beach courtroom.
Justice and the Generals offers unique insight into a new chapter in international human rights law, an important step forward in the campaign to bring military commanders to justice for crimes committed within their ranks. It also shows the creative contemporary use of the Alien Torts Claim law which was first used against pirates in the 18th century
This film follows the trial and includes harrowing interviews with several Salvadoran survivors of torture who use the same international and U.S. laws to pursue the same generals in a follow-up trial. Their case – Romagoza vs. Garcia & Vides Casanova is represented by the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco.
See the PBS website for a full background on the documentary, the history of El Salvador, the two human rights trials and the legal basis for pursuing human rights crimes committed in foreign countries in U.S. courtrooms. Of particular importance is the Alien Torts Claim law, the Torture Victims Protection Act, and the doctrine of Command Responsibility. www.pbs.org/wnet/justice
Credits: Editor: Alison Amron; Cinematographer: Ed Marritz; Associate Producer: Sidney Beaumont
The Long Arc of Justice:
On July 23, 2002 a Florida jury found the Generals liable in the Romagoza case (the Salvadoran torture survivors vs. Generals Garcia and Casanova). The plaintiffs were awarded $54.6 million.
Bill Ford and the other families lost on appeal in the Churchwomen's case and their petition to the Supreme Court was denied.
In 2006 the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the verdict in the Romagoza case. That year Vides Casanova was forced to relinquish $300,000 in assets.
In October of 2009 the U.S. Dept of Homeland Security instituted deportation proceedings against these two former Salvadoran Ministers of defense, Garcia and Vides Casanova, for assisting in torture of Salvadoran civilians.
It is incredibly encouraging to see a film that accurately depicts so many of the issues involved in securing justice and accountability, whether at a state, regional or international level.
It is a complex story, elegantly conveyed through the lives of people closely connected to the facts of the case. It is particularly strong in highlighting the strengths - and weaknesses of using courts to redress the massive violations of rights that occur in repressive regimes. The film invites dicsussion at a dozen levels.
Pellett expertly ties together the volatile political situation in El Salvador, the confounding diplomatic tangle, the novel legal questions, and the human tragedies that are at the center of the story.
...a riveting documentary. Far more than just a rehash of these shocking killings, however, the powerful and often-disturbing PBS presentation examines the difficult question of how society should deal with government-sanctioned human rights violations.
In her line of work, Gail Pellett is no stranger to tough subject matter...The Canadian-born Pellett is a documentary filmmaker best known for her many collaborations with Bill Moyers at PBS. Among their joint efforts was "Facing the Truth," a moving account of South Africa's effort to heal the deep wounds of apartheid by hving its victims face the perpetrators of government-sanctioned racial oppression in public forums. Her experience with the process South Africans called "restorative justice" informed Pellett's work on "Justice and the Generals."