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Tuesday, February 9, 2016
- Human rights groups in Argentina were still celebrating a Supreme Court decision that struck down the amnesty laws protecting military human rights abusers when a call for the revocation of the pardon of the former commanders of the 1976-1983 dictatorship came Wednesday from an unexpected quarter: the army brass.
Human rights groups in Argentina were still celebrating a Supreme Court decision that struck down the amnesty laws protecting military human rights abusers when a call for the revocation of the pardon of the former commanders of the 1976-1983 dictatorship came Wednesday from an unexpected quarter: the army brass.
“The next step must be the annulment of the pardons,” the army chief, General Roberto Bendini, said Wednesday, the day after the Supreme Court declared the two amnesty laws passed in the mid-1980s unconstitutional.
Bendini said it was necessary “to try and convict those who were ultimately responsible” for the gross human rights violations committed by the de facto regime.
“It would be unacceptable for the junior officers to be thrown into prison while the high-ranking officers, who held the greatest responsibility,” go free, he said.
Former commanders of the de facto regime like Jorge Videla and Eduardo Massera are actually already under house arrest, but not for their role in crimes like torture or forced disappearance.
The systematic kidnapping of the children of victims of forced disappearance was proven years after the 1985 trials in which the former junta members were convicted.
After the trials, the former commanders of the dictatorship spent several years in prison before they were pardoned in 1990 by ex-president Carlos Menem (1989-1999).
The verdict issued Tuesday by the Supreme Court set a legal precedent that paves the way for the reopening of a number of cases against military and civilian human rights abusers that had been brought to a halt by the amnesties – the “full stop” law and the “due obedience” law, passed in 1986 and 1987, respectively.
Congress had already repealed the two laws in 1998 and completely annulled them in 2003. A number of cases were reopened as a result, over the past two years, although progress has been slow while a Supreme Court verdict on the constitutionality of the amnesty laws was awaited.
It is estimated that over the next few months, at least 500 (mainly retired) members of the armed forces and police could be summoned to testify in connection with the de facto regime’s human rights crimes, which included the forced disappearance of between 10,000 and 30,000 leftists and other opponents of the regime.
Bendini denied that the Supreme Court ruling would upset the army, as some analysts had earlier predicted. To prove his point, he noted that in the cases that have already been reopened in the past couple of years, the courts put out arrest warrants for 89 members of the army, which caused “no incidents or commotion whatsoever.”
“The legacy of what happened in the 1970s can only be put to rest by the justice system,” said the army chief, who in 2004 personally took down the portrait of former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla from the military academy’s gallery of former leaders, in compliance with an order from President Néstor Kirchner.
For his part, former army chief General Martín Balza labelled the Supreme Court decision “exemplary.”
But he admitted that he is personally still waiting for the “prompt” annulment of the pardons, or a declaration that they are unconstitutional, in order to leave behind once and for all what he described as an “ignominious” past.
Balza, who is currently Argentina’s ambassador to Colombia, drew international praise in the mid-1990s when he apologised for the army’s role in the “dirty war”. He said at the time that “no one can be forced to obey immoral orders,” thus marking a shift in direction within the army, which staged several coups d’etat in the 20th century.
According to Balza, the amnesty laws and pardons contributed to generating a climate of impunity that will persist as long as these mechanisms remain in place. The annulment of the pardons “is the step that is still lacking in order to eliminate impunity once and for all,” he said.
No human rights activist, former political prisoner or relative of the dictatorship’s victims had even dared to call yet for that next step. They preferred instead to celebrate the achievement of the definitive annulment of the amnesty laws and to announce that new cases against members of the military would be filed.
Although courts of first and second instance have already declared the pardons unconstitutional, none of these cases has yet made it to the Supreme Court.
But Tuesday’s landmark decision has opened a debate in which many predict that the high court will soon uphold one of these lower court verdicts on the pardons.
Kirchner, who also praised the Supreme Court decision, avoided mentioning the pardons granted by Menem.
Cabinet chief Alberto Fernández said he had “never” talked about the issue with Kirchner, while Interior Minister Anibal Fernández said it was a question that must be “studied very carefully.”
Several legal experts have already admitted the possibility that the controversial pardons could be annulled.
“The same line of argument used by the Court to strike down the amnesty laws is applicable to the pardons,” Ricardo Gil Lavedra, who sat on the court that convicted the former junta members in the mid-1980s, said Wednesday.
Víctor Abramovich, director of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a local human rights group, and a recently elected member of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, an Organisation of American States (OAS) body, told IPS that “the effects of this ruling are not limited to the amnesty laws. It sets a legal precedent to move against the pardons.”
In their verdict Tuesday, the magistrates ruled that in cases involving crimes against humanity, international human rights conventions to which Argentina is a signatory take precedence over national laws.
“If we commit ourselves to living up to international treaties, we must respect and enforce them,” Supreme Court Justice Carmen Agibay, who until recently sat on the international tribunal in The Hague that brought war criminals from the former Yugoslavia to justice, said Wednesday.
The international agreements “are more than just a signature and noble-sounding statements,” said Agibay, who added that failure to comply with the treaties could have serious consequences for the state.
The prosecutions against human rights violators began in 1985 with the trials of the former junta members, several of whom were sentenced to life in prison.
Later, the legal action taken against thousands of lower-ranking members of the security forces sparked army revolts and heavy military pressure against the still-fragile democracy, which prompted the administration of then president Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989) to push the two amnesty laws through Congress.
The former military commanders and a few surviving leftist guerrilla leaders were then pardoned in 1990.
After the controversial pardon, no member of the military was imprisoned for human rights violations until the late 1990s, when human rights groups brought charges for the kidnapping of the small children of the “disappeared”, including many babies born to political prisoners and given to military couples to raise as their own.
After the Supreme Court issued its verdict Tuesday, former president Alfonsín once again justified having to pass the amnesty laws. He also said the fact that the pardons remain in force generates a sensation of “injustice.”
Former president Menem said he “accepts” the judicial decision to strike down the amnesties, and would do the same in the case of any legal ruling that annulled the pardons. “I was seeking to keep the peace. Now we’ll see what happens,” he said enigmatically.