SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador--A military court said yesterday the massacre of 13 people at two outdoor cafes in 1985 was a political act and ordered three suspects freed under an amnesty. Six of the victims were Americans.
Men wearing Salvadoran army uniforms mowed people down with automatic weapons June 19, 1985, in the "Pink Zone," a strip of trendy restaurants and clubs in San Salvador. Among the dead were four Marine guards from the U.S. Embassy, dressed in civilian clothes.
It was the second legal order under the amnesty freeing suspects or people convicted in the killings of Americans.
Two former soldiers were released last month. They had been sentenced to 30 years in the murders of two U.S. land reform advisers and the head of the Salvadoran land reform agency.
The U.S. Embassy said in a statement yesterday "We do not believe that persons who have committed crimes to terrorism, in this instance the massacre of innocent, unarmed persons eating in a restaurant, should go unpunished.
"We have stated our belief that the release of these persons is morally wrong and politically damaging. We are dismayed at the court's decision."
Rene Edmundo Valdivieso, secretary of the Martial Court, released the ruling from the three-member appellate tribunal. It said the killings were covered by the amnesty program adopted under terms of the Central American peace plan adopted in August.
Valdivieso said the three suspects could be freed on Friday.
The four Marines were seated at two tables when the assailants drove up in a red pickup, witnesses said at the time.
A little-known leftist group called the Mardoqueo Cruz Urban Guerrilla Commandos claimed responsibility. It is an offshoot of one of five guerrilla armies in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, which has been fighting the U.S.-backed government for the past eight years.
The three suspects were identified as Juan Miguel Garcia Melendez, Jose Abraham Dimas Aguilar and William Celio Rivas Bolanos.
Their case went to the Martial Court after the federal attorney general's office appealed the decision of a military judge who ordered them released in November.
Government lawyers argued that the killings had no political connection but were civil crimes, making the detainees ineligible for amnesty, Valdivieso said.
In its decision, the Martial Court said the shootings were "an essentially political crime. The goal of (the rebels) was a military objective. It was an act of terrorism," Valdivieso read the ruling to reporters.
He said the case now will return to military Judge Jorge Alberto Serrano, who issued the initial decision and must order the suspects released.
Salvadoran law provides for appeal of the Martial Court's decision.
Serrano's initial decision was strongly criticized by the State Department. Congress approved a measure that calls for withholding 10 percent of appropriated economic support aid for EI Salvador if the suspects are released.