Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Stanford University

January 13, 2010 - CDDRL, FSI Stanford, PHR In the News

For Karl's students, hands on human rights

Appeared in Stanford Daily, January 13, 2010

By Cristiana Giannini

In Terry Karl’s human rights investigations, “student involvement has always been critical.”

That was Karl’s message at a forum Tuesday to showcase her work with a team of Stanford students in the ongoing investigations of the 1989 “Jesuit massacre” in El Salvador.

Karl, a professor of Latin American studies and political science, recently returned from Madrid, where she presented evidence against former Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani Bukard and 14 former military officers. The case is being tried in front of the Spanish National Court under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

The former officials may be found guilty of crimes against humanity and state terrorism for their roles in the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her young daughter. The atrocity took place during El Salvador’s violent 12-year civil war, which pitted right-wing government death squads against leftist guerillas. The war caused the deaths of over 75,000 civilians, according to the Web site of the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), one of the international human rights associations heavily involved in the case.

A 1993 amnesty law still in effect in El Salvador protects war-time participants from prosecution for human rights abuses within the country, and although Karl’s stated ideal case would put justice “as close to the crimes as possible” — on El Salvadoran soil — political hesitancy arises from the fact that “the people being charged actually have real power today.”

Alexie Dunaway ’11, one of the student researchers who has been busily sorting through piles of documents in pursuit of evidence for the case, traveled to El Salvador last November for the 20th anniversary of the atrocity. There he met the sister of one of the murdered priests, visited the site of the massacre, which has since been transformed into a rose garden, and was hugged and applauded by El Salvadoran villagers in one of the towns where he was delivering flood relief aid. The trip “really lent a sense of reality to everything I had been doing over the last three months,” Dunaway said.

Another student researcher, Mason Flink ’10, has incorporated his experience into a creative senior thesis project that includes both theatrical and social science components. He is writing a screenplay based on U.S. involvement in the cover-up of the murders, and believes that “justice is such a complex thing that there is no way to tackle it except from an interdisciplinary perspective.”

The team also includes Nadia Mufti ‘11, who used her graphic design skills to organize and present the evidence, as well as Fabiola Puerta ’07, who translated documents and constructed appendices to be used at the trial.

Karl stressed on Tuesday the importance of students’ commitment to the project. The forum opened with an introduction to the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law’s new Program on Human Rights, which is now offering human rights fellowships to undergraduates.

Topics: Civil wars | Democracy | Human Rights | International Law | Rule of law and corruption | Terrorism and counterterrorism | El Salvador | United States