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Wednesday, July 22, 1998 Published at 15:25 GMT 16:25 UK

World: Americas

Release ordered of El Salvador nun murderers

Luis Colindres, a former sergeant, talks with the press while leaving prison

A judge in El Salvador has ordered the release of three soldiers, imprisoned for the rape and murder of three American nuns and a lay worker.

The move complicates efforts to investigate allegations made by some of the former soldiers that the murders were ordered by high-ranking officers.

Two of the men have already been released, and a third is expected to walk free on Wednesday.

The former national guardsmen served 17 years in prison after being sentenced to 30-year terms following the killings in 1980.

Their parole is the result of a new law intended to ease overcrowding in El Salvador's prisons.

Two other former guardsmen convicted in the case do not qualify for release: one has a previous conviction on a weapons charge and the other participated in a prison disturbance.

Protest at paroles

Human rights groups and the victims' families have criticised the decision and are calling for a renewed investigation to discover who ordered the men to kill the nuns.

[ image: Mr Colindres shakes hands with guards on leaving prison after 17 years]
Mr Colindres shakes hands with guards on leaving prison after 17 years
Luis Colindres, one of the former prisoners, refuses to back up claims by other members of the squad that they received orders from 'higher up' to murder the four women.

"I have always worked in accordance with the law," he told reporters as he walked through the prison gates.

The Salvadoran authorities say that despite evidence that those who orchestrated the killings were never punished, the case is closed.

El Salvador's Chief Prosecutor, Manuel Cordova, said the 10-year statute of limitations on murder made it impossible to reopen.

Parole plan criticised

The Roman Catholic nuns - Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Maura Clark and layworker Jean Donovan - were killed by a group of five men on December 2, 1980.

It is suspected the women were put to death because military death squads suspected them of sympathising with left-wing guerrillas.

The crimes caused outrage in the United States, which strongly supported the Salvadoran government during the 1980-1992 civil war.

In 1993, a UN report determined that the director of the national guard at the time of the slayings, Colonel Eugenio Vides Casanova, and the country's Defence Minister, Jose Guillermo Garcia, had tried to hide the killings.

It also concluded that Vides Casanova knew that the guardsmen had killed the women on the orders of superiors.

"The families of the churchwomen have felt that the government of El Salvador should certainly not have released these men before closely questioning them on the matter of higher orders - Who ordered this crime and who covered it up," said William Ford, Ita Ford's brother.

El Salvador's national guard was disbanded after a 1992 peace agreement which ended the country's civil war, in which an estimated 75,000 people lost their lives.

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26 Jun 98 | Americas
US condemns nun killers' release

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Amnesty International 1998 report on El Salvador

US Library of Congress country study of El Salvador

Republic of El Salvador Information Centre

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