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A former Salvadoran army colonel who served as a government security minister has been sentenced to 133 years in prison after being found guilty of the murder of five Spanish Jesuits who died in one of the infamous atrocities of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.

Judges at Spain’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, on Friday convicted Inocente Orlando Montano, 77, of the “terrorist murders” of the five Spaniards, who were killed along with a Salvadoran Jesuit and two Salvadoran women 31 years ago.

Montano was handed a sentence of 26 years, eight months and one day for each of the five murders. However, he will not spend more than 30 years in prison, the judges said.

The defendant, who had been accused of taking part in “the decision, design and execution” of the murders, sat in a wheelchair in court as sentence was passed, dressed in a red jumper and wearing a coronavirus mask.

The proceedings were held in Madrid under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which enables human rights crimes committed in one country to be investigated in another.

The panel of judges examined the events of 16 November 1989, when senior Salvadoran military officers attempted to derail peace talks by dispatching a US-trained death squad to murder the Jesuits at their lodgings in the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador.

The soldiers carried with them an AK-47 rifle taken from the leftwing guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in an attempt to pin the blame on the group.

The UCA’s 59-year-old rector, Father Ignacio Ellacuría – originally from Bilbao and a key player in the push for peace – was shot dead, as were Ignacio Martín-Baró, 47, and Segundo Montes, 56, both from Valladolid; Juan Ramón Moreno, 56, from Navarra, and Amando López, 53, from Burgos.

The soldiers also murdered a Salvadoran Jesuit, Joaquin López y López, 71, in his room before killing Julia Elba Ramos, 42, and her daughter, Celina, 15. Ramos was the housekeeper for another group of Jesuits, but lived on the university campus with her husband and daughter.

The Audiencia Nacional judges said that while they also considered Montano responsible for the murders of the three Salvadoran victims, he could not be convicted of their killings as the former soldier had been only extradited from the US to stand trial over the deaths of the five Spaniards.

During the trial in June and July, Montano admitted being a member of La Tandona, a group of violent and corrupt senior army officers who had risen to the top of El Salvador’s political and military elite, and whose power would have been curtailed by the peace talks.

However, he insisted he had “nothing against the Jesuits” and denied participating in a meeting where a plan was concocted to “eliminate” Ellacuría, a liberation theologian who was working towards peace negotiations.

Those claims were contradicted by Yusshy René Mendoza, another Salvadoran former soldier who acted as a prosecution witness. Mendoza told the court that members of the military high command – including Montano – had met the night before the murders and decided “drastic” measures were needed to tackle the FMLN guerrillas, their sympathisers and others.

According to the judgment, Montano took part in the decision to “execute Ignacio Ellacuría as well as anyone in the area – regardless of who they were – so as not to leave behind any witnesses”. Once the victims had been killed, a soldier wrote a message on a wall reading: “The FLMN executed the enemy spies. Victory or death, FMLN.”

The massacre proved hugely counterproductive, generating an international outcry and prompting the US to cut most of its aid to El Salvador’s military regime.

The civil war, fought between the US-backed military government and FMLN, cost more than 75,000 lives.

Ignacio Martín-Baró’s brother Carlos told the Guardian he was pleased by the sentence, but added: “It’s just the start of justice. The important thing here is that there should one day be justice and a trial in El Salvador.”

Almudena Bernabéu, a Spanish human rights lawyer and member of the prosecution team who helped build the case against Montano and get him extradited from the US, said the verdict demonstrated the importance of universal jurisdiction.

“It doesn’t really matter if 30 years have passed, the pain of the relatives carries on,” she said. “I think people forget how important these active efforts are to formalise and acknowledge that someone’s son was tortured or someone’s brother was executed.”

Bernabéu, a co-founder of the Guernica 37 international justice chambers, said the case had only come to trial because of the persistence of the Salvadoran people.

She added: “I think this could create a bit of a wave in El Salvador.”