Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: ‘Dirty War’ Trials Reopen, 20 Years On

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 20 2006 (IPS) - In 1986 he was convicted of 95 counts of torture committed against political prisoners of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, but the next year he was released under an amnesty law. Twenty years later, retired police official Miguel Etchecolatz became the first former member of the security forces to return to court.

Tuesday marked the start of the first trial of a former officer since the Supreme Court ruled in June 2005 that two amnesty laws passed in the late 1980s were unconstitutional.

The trial, which opened in La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires, is being held in the city hall because there is not enough space in the local court rooms. Some 500 people, mainly activists and relatives of the victims of forced disappearance, packed the room where the trial, which could last up to four months, began.

Etchecolatz, 76, was head of investigations in the Buenos Aires provincial police. He was also the right hand man of police chief Ramón Camps, a general who shortly before he died of cancer in the 1980s boasted of the repression, which involved the systematic torture and forced disappearance of 30,000 people, according to human rights groups.

In 1986, Etchecolatz was sentenced to 23 years in prison. But he was released under an amnesty law that held that junior officers had been merely following orders.

However, in the mid-1990s, human rights organisations were successful in their efforts to get him to testify in a case involving the stealing of a baby of victims of forced disappearance, for which he was handed a seven-year sentence. He has been serving house arrest, a benefit that Argentine law offers convicts over 70.

He is now being tried on charges brought in the 1990s on behalf of eight people who were abducted by the security forces and tortured. Six of them are still missing.

“Being able to talk about what happened to us is a very personal process,” Nilda Eloy, 50, told IPS. “Some people need to do it immediately, others are never able to. It took me 20 years. Only now do I feel as if I’m not alone in this.”

Eloy, one of Etechecolatz’s victims, survived 11 months of captivity in a clandestine torture camp in 1977. But her case only came to light in the 1990s.

“They kidnapped me from my parents’ house when I was 19. It was a group led by Etchecolatz. They took me to the detention centre known as ‘La Cacha’ and after three days of torture, I was wearing a hood, and I once again heard the voice that had given the orders during my abduction,” she said.

Eloy was held in six different detention camps in the province of Buenos Aires until she was released at the age of 20.

When the “dirty war” trials of members of the security forces began in the 1980s, she was unable to come forward to talk about her experience. But she will be the first to testify in the trial against Etchecolatz.

Another torture survivor, Jorge López, will also testify, along with 130 witnesses.

The judges must also determine whether Etchecolatz was responsible for the abduction and disappearance of Diana Teruggi, Patricia Dell Orto, Ambrosio De Marco, Nora Formiga, Elena Arce and Margarita Delgado.

The accused complained Tuesday of “political persecution,” and his defence attorneys requested that only three witnesses be summoned: former presidents Maria Estela Martinez de Peron (1974-1976), Italo Luder (1975) and Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989).

In an interview with IPS, lawyer Alicia Peralta with the Human Rights Assembly of La Plata said the trial “marks a watershed because Etchecolatz is the first repressor to be brought to court since the impunity laws were declared unconstitutional” by the Supreme Court.

She also said there is sufficient evidence against him to secure a conviction.

Because of military pressure on the Alfonsín administration, which included armed uprisings, the “full stop” law was passed by the legislature in 1986, setting a 60-day deadline for the start of new prosecutions against members of the security forces. But the flood of lawsuits was not brought to a halt, and the “law on due obedience” was passed in 1987, putting an end to prosecutions of anyone below the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

The members of the junta were also tried and convicted, and sentenced to life in prison, but were pardoned by then-president Carlos Menem (1989-1999).

However, in 2001, a federal court found the amnesty laws unconstitutional; in 2003 Congress struck them down; and last year the Supreme Court upheld the original verdict declaring the laws unconstitutional.

Those who had already been convicted for their role in the “dirty war”, like Etechecolatz, once again began to be arrested.

More than a thousand human rights cases were reopened after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling last year. Today, according to the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a local human rights group, 1,400 former members of the security forces and civilian collaborators are facing charges.

Of the total number of accused, 83 have died, four were declared incompetent, 44 are fugitives from justice, and more than 200 are under arrest, mainly in their homes as they are over 70.

Etchecolatz is serving his sentence at his posh home in the Mar del Plata resort, 400 km south of Buenos Aires.

The next to sit in the dock will be Julio Simón, who is accused of the kidnapping, torture and disappearance of José Poblete and Gertrudis Hlaczik – the case that brought the first federal ruling that the amnesty laws were unconstitutional. His trial will open in late June.

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