Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Human Rights Trials Can Reopen at Last

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 14 2005 (IPS) - In a landmark decision, Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that two amnesty laws that let human rights abusers off the hook in the 1980s were unconstitutional.

In the mid-1980s, the two laws put an end to prosecutions against lower-ranking members of the military and police officers who took part in the 1976-1983 de facto military regime’s “dirty war” against leftists and other opponents.

The ruling, approved by seven of the nine Supreme Court justices, paves the way for the reopening of cases that had been brought to a halt by the “full stop” and “due obedience” laws.

The two laws were enacted in December 1986 and June 1987, after the historic 1985 trials in which the former members of the military junta were convicted and imprisoned.

The full stop law set a 60-day deadline for filing criminal complaints involving human rights violations, while the due obedience law ended the prosecutions of officers of lesser rank who were “following orders.”

But neither law covered the crime of kidnapping and illegal “adoption” of the children of political prisoners, a common practice, as entire families frequently fell victim to forced disappearance.

Many of these infants and toddlers were taken and raised by military families. And in recent years, many officers have been charged and tried for that crime.

Congress revoked the two amnesty laws in 1998 and annulled them entirely in 2003. However, a Supreme Court ruling was needed in order to set a legal precedent that would allow the cases to move forward.

For that reason, although many human rights cases were reopened in the past two years, progress was slow, while a Supreme Court verdict was awaited.

It finally came on Tuesday, in a case involving Julio Simón, a former police officer accused of “disappearing” Marta Hlaczik and José Poblete.

Simón had already been prosecuted for stealing the couple’s daughter, Claudia Poblete, who was eight months old when she was kidnapped with her mother. The baby was turned over to a military officer and his wife, who raised her as their own and concealed her true identity for over two decades.

When the young woman was located by her biological family, a legal battle began against Simón and other former members of the police and military, who were charged with kidnapping Poblete, but could not be brought to trial for the disappearance of her parents, because that crime was covered by the amnesties.

However, a lower court ruled that Simón could not argue that he was merely following orders, to justify “the appalling and obviously illegal acts” carried out against Hlaczik and José Poblete.

Poblete, who was disabled after losing both legs in an accident, was subjected to the same cruel torture as other political prisoners.

In the case, brought by the Poblete family and two local human rights groups – the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) – Judge Gabriel Cavallo ruled in 2000 that the amnesty laws were unconstitutional.

That decision, which was later upheld by the Federal Court, was once again reaffirmed by the Supreme Court Tuesday.

The director of CELS, Víctor Abramovich, told IPS that the verdict will make it possible to move forward in cases that had already been brought against members of the military.

But above all, he said, it represents “a strong signal for the strengthening of (the country’s) democratic institutions…which have been degraded by the impunity of the last few years.”

The human rights lawyer also said that “sooner or later” new legal precedents will bring down the pardons issued in 1989 and 1990 by then president Carlos Menem (1989-1999), which released the former junta members from prison.

Several judges, in fact, have already declared the pardons unconstitutional, and these verdicts will soon reach the Supreme Court.

According to Defence Ministry estimates, between 500 and 1,000 mainly retired members of the security forces could be summoned to testify in a number of cases that had already been reopened after the amnesty laws were struck down by the legislature.

It is difficult to estimate the total number of members of the armed forces and police implicated in human rights crimes.

Military affairs expert Rosendo Fraga puts the number as high as 6,000, but Abramovich believes the total is no higher than 400, only 10 percent of whom are still serving today.

The lawyer ruled out the risk of military resistance to the prosecutions, like that seen in the 1980s.

The full stop law was aimed at severely limiting the number of lower-ranking military officers brought to trial. But the courts got around the restriction by summoning members of the military en masse to testify.

Factions of the armed forces then staged uprisings against the government of Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989), which, under the threat, pushed through the due obedience law in 1987.

But today, most members of the security forces implicated in human rights abuses have retired. In addition, the Supreme Court, long seen as corrupt and biased in favour of the powers-that-be, underwent a purge in recent years.

Of the seven justices who ruled against the amnesty laws Tuesday, five were named in the past four years, and four of these were nominated by centre-left President Néstor Kirchner, who has taken a proactive stance on human rights issues since taking office in 2003.

The president said Tuesday that the amnesty laws “were a disgrace” to all Argentines, and that the verdict “restores faith in justice.”

Defence Minister José Pampuro played down the concern that future prosecutions could cause in the armed forces.

The official noted that 150 members of the military have already been prosecuted in dozens of cases brought around the country, in which forced disappearances – which total 30,000 according to human rights groups and 10,000 according to an official report – are being investigated.

The cases in which the largest number of members of the security forces are implicated are those involving crimes committed in the Navy School of Mechanics, the dictatorship’s largest clandestine torture centre, and the First Army Corps, which oversaw most of the detention centres in the capital and in the province of Buenos Aires.

Human rights groups were elated at the decision. The president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Estela de Carlotto, rejoiced that members of the military could now be tried in their own country, “and with every benefit of the law and the constitution that were denied to our children.”

“The laws suffocated us with impunity. For years we have lived side by side with thieves and murderers,” said the activist, whose daughter, Laura Carlotto, was kidnapped in 1976 and killed shortly after giving birth to a baby boy she named Guido, whose grandmother has been searching for him for nearly 30 years.

Based on testimonials from survivors, de Carlotto gathered information that allowed her to identify her daughter’s killer. But she had not even brought charges, because of the insurmountable barrier thrown up by the amnesty laws.

Now she says there is nothing that will stop her.

The head of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association, Hebe de Bonafini, was also pleased with the verdict, although she was cautious with respect to how it would be applied and enforced.

Bonafini underlined the example set for today’s youngsters by the human rights groups that finally achieved their aim of doing away with impunity, after so many years of struggle.

But the activist said it was unlikely that many members or former members of the military would actually spend much time behind bars, because so many of them are over 70, which means they would be eligible for house arrest.

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