By Pádraig Ó Muirigh

“It’s not Gods will for some to have everything and others to have nothing” – Archbishop Óscar Romero

LAST week marked the 37th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero at the hands of a right wing death squad in San Salvador. His death precipitated a brutal civil war in El Salvador which lasted 12 years and left more than seventy five thousand people dead, many from weapons supplied by the United States.

Ironically, the only court verdict in relation to the murder of the Archbishop was reached in a US court in 2004. A new book titled ‘The Assassination of a Saint’ by Matt Eisenbrandt, a US human rights lawyer, tells the story of how he and his colleagues at the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) fought to bring justice for the murdered Archbishop.

In the 1970’s El Salvador was a deeply divided society with a small number of families controlling the wealth of the country and the vast majority of the population living in poverty. In early 1977 the Vatican named Óscar Romero the new Archbishop of San Salvador. Initially he was perceived as a conservative and non-controversial Jesuit priest, a popular choice for the oligarchy who controlled the country. However, Romero was not blind to the repression of the disadvantaged in El Salvador.

Weeks after he became Archbishop his friend Rutilio Grande was assassinated. This event weighed heavily on Romero, according to Eisenbrandt some who knew the Archbishop said that this tragic event ‘radically altered his thinking’ while others believed it was simply a ‘tipping point for the already evolving archbishop’.

What is clear from this moment Romero began to speak out and became a champion for social justice for the disadvantaged in El Salvador. He immediately boycotted all government engagements until a proper investigation was carried out into the death of Grande. He also cancelled every mass in the diocese in favour of a single celebration in San Salvador’s Cathedral. He pledged to the many thousands who attended ‘whoever touches one of my priests touches me’.

While the media avoided covering human rights abuses by the state, each week the Archbishop used his sermons which were broadcast on radio to publicly criticise the atrocities committed by the security forces and their death squads and to challenge those in power. The Irish charity Trócaire provided the equipment for the radio station.

He also supported the work of Socorro Jurídico, a legal aid office providing free services to those who could not afford lawyers. The office evolved into a human rights organisation that investigated murders, disappearances and arbitrary detentions. Romero used Socorro Jurídico’s evidence extensively in his homilies.

In the months following the death of Grande the Archbishop received many death threats and became the primary target of right wing death squads.

At 6.26 pm on the 24th March 1980 while celebrating mass he was assassinated as he stood at the altar in the chapel where he lived. Nuns and congregates rushed to the aid of the fatally wounded Archbishop but it was too late. A quarter of a million people attended his funeral. More than 40 people died when the funeral was attacked with bombs and bullets. One of those present that day was a good friend of the Archbishop, former Bishop of Galway, Eamon Casey, who died last month.

Those responsible for the murder of Archbishop Romero remained unpunished for 25 years. Matt Eisenbrandt and his colleagues at the CJA pursued those responsible in a civil suit in the US under the Alien Tort Statute (a criminal charge was not possible in US law). The US courts have interpreted this statute to allow foreign citizens to seek remedies in the United Sates courts for human rights violations for conduct committed outside the United States. The CJA carried out background investigative work to locate one of those allegedly involved in the murder, Álvaro Rafael Saravia, a resident in Miami and later in California. They served legal papers at an address he was known to frequent.

The civil trial eventually heard evidence from the driver of the getaway car used in the murder, Amado Garay. Another who gave evidence at the hearing was Atilio Ramírez Amaya, the judge who investigated Archbishop Romero’s death in 1980 before fleeing the country when attempts were made on his life. He told the court of the role of the military in El Salvador in the cover-up of the murder.

In the court judgment in 2004 Judge Wagner held Saravia liable for the ‘wrongful killing’ of Archbishop Romero and issued a $10m dollar judgment against him. To this day he is only person held responsible for the death of Romero in a court of law.

The legal action did not only highlight the cover up of this murder in El Salvador but also shed light on the role of the US in El Salvador. Declassified State Department CIA documents revealed that the US Government was aware of Saravia’s alleged involvement in the Romero assassination as early as 1980 yet he was able to reside freely in the US many years later.

35 years after his death Archbishop Oscar Romero was beatified by the Vatican, the last step before being made a saint. A petition for his sainthood languished for decades until the appointment of Pope Francis. At his beatification Pope Francis stated: “His ministry was distinguished by a particular attention to the most poor and marginalised.”

The 24th March also marked the International Day for the Right to Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims’ which was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010 in recognition of the role of Archbishop Romero in defending human rights. On this day we should reflect on the legacy of Archbishop Romero, honour the memories of victims of human rights violations and pay tribute to those who devote their lives, and who have lost their lives, in the struggle to promote and protect human rights for all.

Matt Eisenbrandt will bring his inspiring story to Féile an Phobáil on the 5th August 2017. I hope to see you there.

Pádraig Ó Muirigh is a human rights lawyer based in West Belfast.