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Almudena Bernabéu: The Brave Lawyer Who Wants to Bring Justice (and History)

After bringing ex-dictators to court, this courageous and tenacious lawyer wants to bring justice and make history with the case of the Jesuit Priests killed in El Salvador.


Photos: Ofelia DE PABLO / Javier ZURITA

1 August 2020

To access the article in Spanish click here

Almudena Bernabéu (Alicante, 1972) has spent 12 years of her life researching to make this historical moment possible. In 1989, in El Salvador, a group of soldiers shot six Jesuit priests -including the charismatic Ignacio Ellacuría, University Dean of the Central American University (UCA)- along with the cook who worked for them and her daughter. When this interview takes place, there are only ten days left for the second part of the oral hearing that was held at the Spanish National Criminal Court in July. In the court presided over by judge José Antonio Mora, the intellectual authorship of the former Salvadoran Vice-minister, Inocente Montano, who is 76 years old and for whom 150 years of sentence are requested, is decided.

The lawyer, an expert in international justice and a tireless scourge of genocidaires and dictators, is at home in San Francisco, still uncertain whether she will be able to travel with her eight-year-old son to Spain to attend the trial as a private prosecution. The delivery of this historic sentence is imminent. The work after the long "period of silence" is done, and the list of battles does not cloud her sense of humor or quench her strong and contagious laughter.

At the age of 26, Bernabéu collaborated in the trial of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet; she worked to bring to account those responsible for the so-called "death flights" in Argentina; at the request of Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú she did not stop until Guatemalan ex-dictator Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide of the Mayan people and crimes against humanity. Other milestones in her career have been the conviction of one of the torturers of Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara and the first criminal action admitted for prosecution against leaders of the Syrian army for crimes during the war. From her international office, The Guernica Group, with offices in San Francisco, London and Madrid, she continues to be the feisty and energetic lawyer who is very clear about where justice lies.

The trial of the Jesuit priests has already concluded, leaving the case remitted for judgment, and the former Colonel Inocente Montano has denied any responsibility in the massacre, at the hands of the Atlacatl battalion of the Salvadoran army, in the early hours of that November 16th. The prosecutor's office is asking for 150 years in prison for him. Bernabéu managed to have Montano extradited from the United States, where he had fled.

She is not surprised that he denies the facts, but she is surprised at how these individuals shape the “no” over time: “Over the years they become more cunning. They know that a point-blank refusal is a vulgarity, so these men who are so proud of their military insignias try to play down the maneuverability they had”, she says. Members of armies as powerful as the Salvadoran one, she continues, "go from being the great military male to having a role that was purely administrative. They were there to pick up the phone!" Bernabéu made the personal and professional decision to go after the most powerful, "if possible, go after ministers of defence and presidents", she clarifies with a strong accent. “Therein lies the real responsibility and the opportunity to change things”. How do you feel about them? "I feel ashamed of them", says the lawyer. In addition to shame: “I have never heard one of them acknowledge that things were done wrong, they show no regret.”

During these three decades, the Society of Jesus has not ceased to seek responsibility, something that for Bernabeu makes this case peculiar. International justice is a real long-distance race and she admits that the extension in time of these processes is disappointing. "I am not saying that cases are not won or that things are not tried, but there is a deterioration due to their excessive duration. You can't have a case open for 25 years because you delegitimize what you're trying to achieve. In the end they become, with all the love I have for international courts, United Nations officials serving very little the country they are supposed to serve, who do not feel compensated". Her work on the Jesuit case has coincided with an important part of her life's journey. In the 12 years that she has been involved with the case, Almudena Bernabéu has married, had a child, started another law firm... "And that's nothing compared to the waiting of the victim’s relatives," she adds.

Bernabéu finds in dealing with the victims one of the sources of energy to continue. "The problem is that sometimes you lose hope and the worst thing is to transmit to your clients that you do not see clearly ... If you are the mother of a person who has been murdered, your engine is a very deep wound in the heart. I am a lawyer, in the end, oblivious to the pain that is so much theirs. I can't be you, nor should I, because it's not my place. I am afraid that the inner flame will go out sometimes.

This warm and approachable lawyer, who prepares her son's breakfast while sparing no time for the interview, is emphatic when asked if it has been to her advantage to be a woman when talking to victims and witnesses. “It has helped me enormously in some of the phases”, she says. We see six realities at once, something that allows you to go deeper into the stories and get closer to the suffering. My male colleagues would move away from more direct contact with witnesses and victims and leave me, the girl, almost always younger than them. It was an honour for me; hard, but a pleasure.

Two key witnesses participated in the Montano trial: Lucia Barrera, a Jesuit domestic worker, and her husband Jorge Alberto Cerna. Bernabéu speaks of them with affection. "Lucía had the same relation with the Jesuits priests as Elba, who was murdered. They were very funny human beings, chatty and football fans...". Also, ex-Lieutenant Rene Yusshy Mendoza became another of the fundamental testimonies: he was present during the execution of the priests and the Spanish National Criminal Court exempted him because the crime had expired. It was precisely this ex-military officer who pointed out that Montano, the only defendant, was among those who gave the order to end Ellacuría and not leave any witnesses.

Bernabéu received repeated threats and had to be escorted by bodyguards. "I don't consider myself a particularly brave person. Of course you're scared by threats," she says. But I always think that righteousness is on my side, something that creates problems for me with my husband, and that righteousness will prevail over the violence and wicked. As naive as it sounds, I've lived in that black and white world since I was a kid.”

The Jesuit priests’ murders were a turning point in El Salvador's quest for justice and a turning point in the civil war that had raged for 12 years in that Central American country. But will this trial in Spain have an impact there? Almudena Bernabéu believes that this type of process awakens nations. “It may happen like in Guatemala. The Spanish National Criminal Court's work was amazing and had a consequently psychological effect, which encouraged national judges to try”, she argues. Her words reveal her admiration for the resistance of the Salvadorans: "The human rights movement has been thin, but very tough; they have been very consistent. Victims' associations are always looking for loopholes to open up in terms of justice. There is a little bit of openness because the current government does not interfere".

The declassification of documents by the United States, where the lawyer has resided for more than two decades, has been key to the investigation into the case of the murdered Jesuit priests. "The United States was the provider of all the resources for the Salvadoran armed forces and an absolute accomplice in those days. Spain, in my opinion, was both a little ignorant and a little accomplice for not paying much attention to some of those problems. At that time, we were too worried about leaving our dictatorship, and there was a tacit abandonment of the relatives.

Cases like these priests, which involve three countries, are the battleground of Almudena Bernabéu, who claims to be "obsessed with transnationality". "I believe that the problems of the world - and the pandemic has demonstrated this in a very clear way - are not of a specific country, or even of a region, the capacity to work horizontally country to country or region to region; that is for me the breeding ground of effectiveness".


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