By Nelson Renteria
SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - An amnesty bill that critics say aims to whitewash crimes committed during El Salvador's bloody civil war faced an uncertain fate in Congress on Thursday following an outcry from victims' families, the United Nations and global rights groups.
The bill, which was being discussed by lawmakers in committee, aims to prohibit jail time for former military personnel and leftist guerillas accused of atrocities during the 1980-1992 war in which 75,000 people were killed and 8,000 went missing.
However, lawmakers with roots in opposing sides of the war are in a race against time to pass the bill, since President-elect Nayib Bukele opposes it and could veto the legislation if it is not on the books before he takes office on June 1.
If the bill does not go to a vote on Thursday, it would be difficult to push it through without a special session of Congress, which usually meets only once a week.
In July 2016, El Salvador's Supreme Court of Justice declared unconstitutional a 1993 amnesty law that prevented investigation, prosecution and imprisonment of people responsible for war crimes. Judges ordered Congress to adopt a new law to promote national reconciliation before July 2019.
The last-minute attempt to soften punishments is part of a backlash in Central America against attempts to bring justice for excesses in the region's Cold War-era conflicts. It follows a similar bill in Guatemala that could lead to the release of former soldiers convicted of massacres.
Backed by lawmakers of the ruling leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the opposition right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the "law of reconciliation" would also release a soldier imprisoned in 2016.
The two parties dominate the Legislative Assembly, controlling 60 of the 84 seats. They need a simple majority to approve the bill.
The bill was not drawn up in consultation with victims' families, and human rights groups fear it means there will be no justice for those killed in notorious massacres like El Mozote and El Sumpul, as well as crimes including the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the 1979 disappearance of former South African ambassador Archibald Gardner Dunn.
U.N. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet, a former Chilean president who herself was detained during a military dictatorship in her country, urged lawmakers to refrain from "adopting provisions that contravene international law."
"If passed, these provisions will unduly benefit people who, during the armed conflict, were directly responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes," she said in a statement.
"They will also result in impunity for the masterminds and military leaders who ordered such crimes, or failed to adopt measures to prevent or stop them."
U.S. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Kimberly Breier said any national reconciliation law in El Salvador should protect the rights of victims to seek justice.
A small group of relatives of victims gathered on Thursday in front of the official residence of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a civil war leader of the FMLN, to protest.
"This law has many conflicts of interest," said Andres Garcia, 64, who said his father was killed in 1985 by members of the military.
The bill foresees community service instead of jail time.
"(The penalty of imprisonment) will be replaced by a penalty of community service, with work days set out in the respective ruling, whose minimum limit will be three years and whose maximum will be 10 years," the draft of the law reads.
(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)