San Salvador – When Saskia ter Laag visited the spot where Salvadoran soldiers shot her brother, Hans, while he reported on El Salvador‘s civil war 37 years ago, she felt peace, but not closure.
In 1982, the Salvadoran military ambushed and killed four Dutch journalists – Koos Koster, Jan Kuiper, Joop Willemsen, and Hans ter Laag – alongside the Salvadoran rebel fighters accompanying them as they headed behind rebel lines in northwestern department of Chalatenango to cover the conflict for Dutch broadcaster IKON.
Saskia ter Laag and Gert Kuiper, brother of Jan Kuiper, testified to the attorney general’s office in El Salvador on Friday, seeking to spur on the investigation.
“Justice should be done,” ter Laag told Al Jazeera. “We are here to speed up the case before all those who are responsible are dead.”
The attorney general reopened the case about a year ago after the Supreme Court scrapped an amnesty law that had relegated investigations to the archives and shielded perpetrators of civil war-era crimes from prosecution for more than two decades.
Kuiper said that while the families are happy to see a step forward, the process has gone “very slowly”. He hopes their visit will “increase pressure” towards a trial. “We’ve come to declare ourselves victims of impunity,” he said.
With the knowledge of other officers, Mario Reyes Mena ordered the ambush against the journalists, just days after the head of the secret police, Francisco Antonio Moran, interrogated them in San Salvador, according to the United Nations Truth Commission report on the conflict. Reyes Mena, who now lives in the United States, and other military men “concealed the truth and obstructed the judicial investigation”, the commission found.
Pedro Cruz, a lawyer representing two of the families, told Al Jazeera the case is at a “critical stage” and expects to see a decision within months on whether it will go to trial.
Julio Larrama, one of the four prosecutors in the country investigating scores of civil war crimes, told Al Jazeera his team sees all cases as a priority, but puts particular emphasis on emblematic cases detailed in the Truth Commission, including the killing of the four Dutch journalists. He could not share details about the status of the investigation.
Earlier this month, national and international human rights organisations penned an open letter calling on the attorney general to prioritise prosecution of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the armed conflict.
A documentary called “In Cold Blood”, aired last year on Dutch television, and a new Spanish-language book and multilingual multimedia project called “The Ambush”, launched on Thursday in San Salvador, have brought heightened attention to the case. Ter Laag also published a book in Dutch on the journalists’ story in 2013 titled “Silent No More”.
New amnesty proposal
Ter Laag and Kuiper’s visit to El Salvador to call for justice for their brothers’ killing comes as a Salvadoran congressional committee tasked with drafting a National Reconciliation Law discusses a proposal that seeks to reinstate a blanket amnesty for civil war-era crimes.
Sidney Blanco, who served as Supreme Court justice when the court declared the 1993 Amnesty Law unconstitutional in 2016, told Al Jazeera the new proposal is “even worse” than the original amnesty, filled with “ambiguous” clauses.
The sponsor of the proposal, Rodolfo Parker, who is named in the Truth Commission for working to cover up the responsibility of the senior military officers in civil war massacres, resigned from the commission after national and international human rights groups firmly criticised his draft text for encouraging crimes against humanity to go unpunished. He denies the characterisation.
The committee took Parker’s proposal for a “broad, absolute, and unconditional” amnesty as a starting point for discussion on legislation to address reparations for victims and national reconciliation. Human rights groups and organisations representing victims criticise the absence of the victims in Parker’s proposal and in the drafting process itself.
“If the commission truly had a focus on victims, they would have created spaces for dialogue with victims,” Manuel Escalante, a lawyer with the Institute for Human Rights at the Central American University told Al Jazeera. “The process of creating the laws that will offer reparations to victims is also reparative.”
Ter Laag called attempts to push for a new amnesty “very dangerous”.
“Impunity needs to end in this country,” she said.
Natalie Southwick, Central and South American coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Al Jazeera the killing of the four Dutch journalists “remains one of the gravest examples of impunity in cases of murdered journalists in the region”.
“Even so long after the fact, prosecuting the masterminds of this crime would offer a chance for justice and send a powerful message to others who try to use violence to silence journalists that they cannot expect to get away with it,” she said.