FRESNO, Calif. (AP) – A federal judge found a retired Salvadoran air force captain liable Friday in the 1980 slaying of a Salvadoran archbishop and ordered him to pay $10 million in damages.

Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot to death by a sniper as he performed Mass, and no one was ever held responsible for the slaying, which helped push El Salvador into a 12-year civil war.

The Catholic Church has taken the first step toward the canonization of Romero, who was an outspoken critic of state-sponsored violence, and who nearly 25 years after his death is still revered for his support of the poor, and of those working for social change.

The unusual lawsuit was brought on behalf of one of Romero’s relatives under a little-known law that allows foreign nationals with U.S. connections to be sued for crimes like torture or genocide.

It asked the court to determine whether the evidence presented was enough to show that Alvaro Rafael Saravia, a retired Salvadoran air force captain last known to be living in Modesto, could be held liable for Romero’s death.

Saravia was not present and had no representation in court.

“To be liable for the killing of a human being, you don’t have to pull the trigger,” Judge Oliver Wanger told about 100 spectators in the courtroom, many of them Salvadoran. The courtroom erupted in applause, and many in attendance began weeping.

The judge ordered Saravia to pay the plaintiffs $2.5 million in compensatory damages and an additional $7.5 million in punitive damages.

The lawsuit argued that Saravia conspired to commit the killing by providing the sniper with a gun, payment and transportation.

The suit was brought by one of Romero’s siblings, who has not been identified because the judge agreed that there was still significant danger of retaliation.

A United Nations truth commission linked Saravia and others to Romero’s death. Immediately after the commission’s findings were made public, an amnesty law was passed in 1993.

Saravia did not respond to the lawsuit filed by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, although the judge ruled that an adequate effort had been made to reach him, and that the suit should continue without him.

All attempts to bring the case to Salvadoran courts were silenced by threats or political opposition, witnesses said.

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