Noe Valley Voice April 2007

Terry Lynn Karl: Noe Valley's Champion for Human Rights

By Lorraine Sanders

For almost two decades, Terry Lynn Karl kept the several boxes of papers, photographs, and other documents she'd amassed during her many trips to El Salvador during the 1980s tucked away in her Sanchez Street home. She wasn't quite sure why she kept them. She just knew she had to.

"Something just said, 'Hang on to this, hang on to this,'" says Karl, a Stanford University professor of political science and Latin American studies who has lived in Noe Valley since 1986.

Of course, Karl's boxes weren't filled with the sort of ordinary ephemera one collects over the years. The contents of those boxes, along with Karl's own experiences, led to landmark victories in three major U.S. human rights and war crime trials between 2002 and 2006. One--Romagoza et al v. Garcia and Vides Casanova--resulted in the first jury verdict in U.S. history to find war generals guilty of crimes against humanity under the doctrine of command responsibility.

A petite redhead with a chatty personality, Karl does not, on the surface at least, look like the bulldog chief expert witness she is. In fact, Karl admits that her friendly demeanor may have helped her gain access to the Salvadoran military leaders and war-torn areas she visited during the country's long civil war, a conflict catalyzed by the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. During the 12-year war, an estimated 70,000 civilians were killed by their own military.

In the early 1980s, Karl was a young Harvard professor traveling back and forth to Central America to conduct research on the subject that forms the cornerstone of her life's work: oil. Her position at a leading American educational institution gave her entrée to the inner sanctums of many Central American leaders, ranging from the head of OPEC to the president of El Salvador.

During one visit, she stumbled across a corpse in a McDonald's parking lot. It was her first day in El Salvador.

"I was walking, and it was dark, and I literally kicked this body," she recalls.

That may have been her first encounter with the war's toll on innocent civilians, but it was hardly her last. She witnessed the remains of 123 murdered children in a Salvadoran village. She photographed military leaders. She photographed the dead. Although she never imagined using the material to prosecute those responsible for the civilian carnage, Karl was certain she was witnessing gross human rights violations and was frustrated by how little attention they received on an international level.

"I was appalled that you couldn't make real to someone a Salvadoran peasant--just like all those bombings in Iraq don't seem real," she says.

But the idea that the military commanders leading the violence would ever be brought to justice in a U.S. court of law never crossed Karl's mind. After all, this was another country's civil war.

Fast-forward two decades. Completely by chance, a Salvadoran woman now living in the United States spotted a man who had tortured her during the war. They were riding the same subway train. Both were now U.S. citizens. The Center for Justice and Accountability, set up by Amnesty International, pursued the case after first establishing a "most wanted" list of Salvadoran human rights violators. Soon, another man accused of torturing civilians was located selling used cars in Modesto. Another was found living out his golden years in Memphis, Tenn. And two former Salvadoran ministers of defense who held those posts during the civil war were found living in Florida.

Karl learned about the case and volunteered to organize evidence against the accused military leaders--some 10,000 declassified documents--and testify as the chief expert witness at their trials. To accomplish the Herculean task, Karl tapped several Stanford students to help.

For the first trial, Karl's team and a group of lawyers working pro bono set out to prove that former Salvadoran military generals Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova were responsible for murder, torture, and crimes against humanity conducted during the war. But even with testimony from torture victims and Karl's storehouse of evidence, victory on the grounds of command responsibility seemed like a long shot. "You have to tell a jury that these generals, these guys that now look like they're your grandfather, these guys who were in most cases not even in the room when people were tortured, you have to make a leap for the jurors to say, 'These people are responsible even if they weren't right there and even if we can't prove they gave the actual orders,'" Karl explains.

But the combination of Karl's academic expertise and firsthand experience was too powerful to ignore.

"Watching her testify was poetry in motion," says Jenais Zarlin, one of the Stanford students who worked on the trials with Karl. "The jury was captivated. She was systematically describing an entire socio-political history that required two full days of explanation. She kept the jury spellbound."

As a result of Karl's testimony, both generals were convicted of murder, torture, and crimes against humanity. A later trial also found Colonel Nicolas Carranza, formerly El Salvador's vice minister of defense, guilty of crimes against humanity. Because the trials were civil and not criminal in nature, none of the defendants will ever end up in jail. Instead, their punishment will come in the form of substantial fines.

Given the groundbreaking nature of the trials, it should come as no surprise that Karl is best known for her human rights work. She holds an honorary degree in human rights from the University of San Francisco and regularly speaks about her involvement with the trials. But her true passion is oil, a subject she views as inextricably linked to war, peace, and human rights. Oil Wars, her latest book on the subject, is due out this month.

"The human rights work and the oil work have come together for me in the full sense," Karl says. "Many of the greatest human rights violations today have an oil story underneath them."

Terry Lynn Karl was recently awarded the Miriam Aaron Roland Volunteer Service Prize from Stanford University's Haas Center for Public Service.