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ARGENTINA: Former ‘Disappeared’, Key Trial Witness, Missing Again

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 26 2006 (IPS) - Thirty years after he was forcibly disappeared by Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, a survivor of the “dirty war” who played a key role in the first conviction of a former torturer on charges of genocide has once again gone missing.

Jorge Julio López, 77, was last seen on Sunday, Sep. 17. His testimony was crucial in bringing former Buenos Aires provincial police commissioner Miguel Etchecolatz to justice. Etchecolatz was sentenced on Sep. 19 to life in prison for kidnapping, torture and homicide.

López planned to appear in court on Sep. 18 for the final trial arguments, but he never showed up. Since then, the Buenos Aires police have launched an all-out search, with his face appearing on “missing” leaflets and in TV ads.

On Tuesday, a federal court in La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires province, stated that Etchecolatz committed “crimes against humanity,” and that he “commanded several clandestine detention centres” and committed “extremely grave crimes” as part of the broader phenomenon of “genocide.”

López, a construction worker, was an activist in the Justicialista (Peronist) Party in the 1970s. He was abducted by the provincial police in October 1976 and was released three years later, after being tortured by Etchecolatz and other members of the security forces in various clandestine detention centres.

His testimony provided essential evidence to prove that political prisoners Patricia Dell’Orto and Ambrosio de Marco were shot in the head by Etchecolatz, and that Paraguayan citizen Norberto Rodas and other detainees who López was unable to identify were also killed.

López’s family believes that he might be in hiding, out of fear, or because he was overwhelmed by the situation. But human rights groups have little doubt that he was kidnapped by active-duty or retired police officers.

The government’s Secretary of Human Rights, Eduardo Luis Duhalde, said Tuesday that “no hypothesis has been ruled out” with respect to López’s disappearance. “He may have been kidnapped, but there is also a possibility that he decided to go into hiding for his own safety. However, there is no evidence supporting either of these alternatives.”

President Néstor Kirchner spoke out on the issue for the first time on Tuesday. “We are throwing our will, our determination, behind this, so that we can solve this quickly and find” López, he said. “We are going to protect the fight against impunity, do not fear.”

Buenos Aires provincial Governor Felipe Solá directly referred to the possibility of forced disappearance, and mentioned “the possible involvement of provincial police officers.”

“This is not just any disappearance,” Solá said in a press conference he offered alongside provincial security minister León Arslanián. López was a “key witness,” he underlined, and may be “the first victim of forced disappearance to disappear again in Argentina in democracy.”

Some 30,000 people, according to human rights groups, were “disappeared” during the dictatorship.

According to Solá, López may have been kidnapped to intimidate other witnesses who are to appear in some 1,000 trials that have opened up since Argentina’s two amnesty laws for former members of the military were declared unconstitutional and struck down by the Supreme Court last year.

Etchecolatz had been sentenced to 23 years in prison for kidnapping and torture in 1986, but was let off the hook by the amnesty laws.

The trial in which López testified was the first oral trial against a former “dirty war” human rights violator since the amnesty laws were scrapped.

Human rights organisations have held demonstrations to demand that López reappear alive and to call for protection for witnesses in future human rights trials.

“That Sunday I had spoken with Jorge, and he was fine,” Nilda Eloy, the other key witness in Etchecolatz’s trial, told IPS. “He is completely lucid, and despite his age he gets around by bicycle. He was very pleased that he had testified.”

Eloy said that although there is no evidence that López was kidnapped, she sees the supposition as “logical.”

“Only five percent of the repressors are in prison. The rest are free or under house arrest,” said Eloy, who was abducted in 1976, held as a political prisoner for one year, and tortured by Etchecolatz.

In the trial, she said that one night in 1976 a group of around 20 men in civilian dress broke into her house, commanded by Etchecolatz, and took her to an illegal detention centre. Her parents and siblings were beaten, and her home was ransacked twice.

Threats to family members, witnesses and “dirty war” survivors were routine during the prosecution of Etchecolatz, but they generally did not go beyond intimidating telephone calls.

The most serious incident involved the beating of prosecutor Carlos Dulau, who was kidnapped for several hours. But the kidnapping took place two years ago, during an earlier trial against Etchecolatz.

Some survivors agree that López’s disappearance is aimed at intimidating witnesses.

“There is a great deal of uncertainty about what may have happened,” prosecutor Dulau said Tuesday.

“In this trial, we obtained a historic ruling that invokes the figure of genocide, and that will permit a fundamental labour in the prosecutions that lie ahead,” he said. “Now there are witnesses who are starting to feel afraid of appearing in court.”

The genocide conviction is a novelty in Argentina. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”

It goes on to list killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The international definition excludes other motives, like the political motives that were behind the Argentine dictatorship’s oppression of leftists and other dissidents.

Lawyer Guadalupe Godoy of the Argentine League for the Rights of Man told IPS that she had “no doubt” López was kidnapped, and accused members of the Buenos Aires police force.

“López’s family is devastated by having to relive this again, which is why they prefer to believe he is lost or in hiding; it’s a natural defence mechanism. That’s what we also thought at first, but not now, nine days after he went missing,” said Godoy, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Etchecolatz case.

She said the Buenos Aires government had admitted that 60 active-duty members of the provincial police served during the dirty war.

But on Tuesday, the governor forced them into early retirement.

Godoy said López was strong and healthy, not a frail elderly man. “He not only always attended the trial at key stages, and to testify, but he also took part in three crime scene reconstructions in detention centres.”

Human rights groups have called a demonstration for Wednesday in the central Buenos Aires Plaza de Mayo in front of the seat of the national government, to demand greater efforts in the search for López. “Painfully, once again, after 30 years, we are going to demand that a ‘desaparecido’ reappear alive,” the activists said in their announcement.

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