El Salvador court frees Army officer behind Jesuit massacre

Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, who is part of 17 former military personnel accused of killing six Jesuit priests in 1989, waits in court to be notified of Spanish judge Eloy Velasco's request to extradite to Spain, in San Salvador, El Salvador April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas/File Photo

SAN SALVADOR, Nov 14 (Reuters) - A Salvadoran court released a retired high-ranking Army officer convicted of ordering the massacre of six Roman Catholic priests belonging to the Jesuit order during the brutal peak of the country's civil war decades ago, his lawyer said on Monday.

The ruling ordered the release of Colonel Guillermo Benavides because of his age and because he completed a third of his sentence in October, according to his lawyer David Campos.

Benavides, 77, was originally sentenced to a 30-year prison term in 1992.

The following year, however, an amnesty law freed Benavides, but he was then forced to return to prison after the law was overturned in 2016.

Campos praised the court's evaluation of the case in comments to reporters outside the courthouse shortly after the ruling was issued.

In one of the ugliest episodes of El Salvador's dozen years of civil war between 1979 and 1992, a group of U.S.-trained Salvadoran soldiers stormed the Jesuit Central American University campus in 1989 and assassinated six priests, including rector Ignacio Ellacuria, plus the housekeeper and her daughter.

The Salvadoran government targeted the Jesuit priests due in large part to Ellacuria's outspoken opposition to military rule and the order's role in peace talks.

A spokesperson for the Central American University and its lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Central American country's civil war left around 75,000 Salvadorans dead and another 8,000 missing, according to official estimates.

Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Kylie Madry; Editing by Lincoln Feast

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