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US charges former Salvadorean defense chief

world Updated: Feb 24, 2009 09:34 IST

US prosecutors charged a former defense minister from El Salvador, who lost a civil torture lawsuit in 2002, with passport fraud and lying to federal agents in an indictment made public on Monday.

Jose Guillermo Garcia, a longtime legal resident of Florida, was defense minister from 1979 to 1983 and was a member of the US backed government during the Central American nation's civil war. He had been accused by Salvadoreans of permitting atrocities.

US immigration authorities seized his passport several years ago for reasons they would not disclose.

The indictment alleges Garcia obtained a new passport by falsely telling the Salvadorean government he had lost the original.

The indictment alleges he committed fraud by using that passport to re-enter the United States at Miami International Airport in July 2006 and that he also lied to US immigration authorities about his original passport at that time.

Garcia, now in his 70s, was expected to surrender on the charges and would face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

US authorities declined to discuss why charges were being filed only now or to disclose details of the investigation.

"He's alleged to have committed a felony," said Alex Acosta, US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. "Felony charges are serious and carry consequences. We think it's appropriate to proceed at this time."

Liable for torture

Garcia was one of two retired Salvadorean generals found liable in 2002 in a US civil court lawsuit for the torture of three civilians by Salvadorean troops during the country's civil war in the early 1980s.

He and retired General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova were ordered to pay $54.6 million to the three Salvadorean plaintiffs who testified they were beaten and maimed by troops and police who suspected them of aiding leftist insurgents.

Jurors found that the generals should have known troops and police officers under their command were committing abuses and that they failed to halt them or punish those responsible.

The plaintiffs sued in Florida under US and international law allowing courts to assess damages against perpetrators of human rights abuses committed abroad.

One of those plaintiffs, torture survivor Neris Gonzalez, praised the decision to indict Garcia.

"While the charges do not match the severity of the atrocities Garcia presided over in El Salvador, the indictment is a concrete step forward toward accountability," said Gonzalez

She was eight months pregnant when soldiers raped her and used a metal bed frame as a seesaw across her belly, prompting her to give birth prematurely to a son who died of the injuries.

"Tens of thousands of civilians were murdered, tortured and disappeared under Garcia's watch -- he should not be allowed to continue to live with impunity in the United States," she said in a statement.

In another lawsuit in 2000, the two generals were found not liable for the 1980 torture, rape and murder of four US Catholic missionaries in El Salvador.