PHOENIX — This week an unusual deportation hearing wrapped up in Miami.
The questions in Jose Guillermo Garcia's deportation case aren't the typical ones heard in immigration court, such as whether the defendant entered the country improperly, or committed certain crimes in the U.S. that are deportable offenses.
Rather, the case centers on Garcia's actions during his post as Minister of Defense in El Salvador more than 30 years ago.
Garcia's tenure from 1979-1983 coincided with the start of a bloody 12-year civil war, in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed by military forces.
Garcia then came to the United States, where he received asylum. He is currently a legal permanent resident.
Now, the Department of Homeland Security is trying to deport the former general for his role in human rights abuses in his home country.
The basis for their case comes from a federal counterterrorism law passed in 2004.
It includes a section that says foreigners who "committed, ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated" in torture or extrajudicial killing abroad can be excluded or removed from the United States.
In a phone interview, human rights attorney Caroline Patty Blum said Garcia's case is an important test of how that law can be applied.
"The statute that is being used to try to remove General Garcia has not been law very long and it has rarely if ever been applied to the highest level commander of a country," Blum said.
Last year, an immigration judge ordered that another Salvadoran defense minister, Eugenio Vides Casanova, could be deported for his role in torture and killings.
Blum's organization, the Center for Justice and Accountability, represented three torture victims in a civil case against Garcia and Vides Casanova, that resulted in a $54.6 million judgement against them in 2002. The verdict was upheld by an appeals court in 2006.
In immigration court in Miami this week, Garcia told the immigration judge he was not able to stop military abuses against civilians, according to coverage from the Associated Press.
The case will take months to be resolved. Attorneys for both sides have until July 5 to submit their final reply briefs.
Even once the immigration judge rules, this case is likely to be appealed.
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