Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

HUMAN RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Justice Catches Up to the Condor

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 13 2006 (IPS) - Twenty-one years after the historic trial in which former junta members of Argentina&#39s 1976-1983 dictatorship were convicted, former general Jorge Rafael Videla is returning to court to answer for crimes committed in the 1970s and 1980s, within the framework of South America&#39s Operation Condor.

The case, originally filed in 1999, is finally about to proceed to oral trial, after years of delaying tactics by the former officer&#39s defence attorneys aimed at preserving the impunity enjoyed by the ex-dictator and 15 other Argentine ex-military brass, who now must face charges of kidnapping and disappearance of 110 people.

Operation Condor was a coordinated plan among the military governments that ruled Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay in the 1970s and 1980s, aimed at tracking down, capturing and eliminating left-wing opponents. During this time, state terrorism ran virtually unchecked in the region.

On May 20, 1976, shortly after Operation Condor was launched, Uruguayan legislators Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz, along with two other Uruguayan citizens, were found murdered in Buenos Aires. The two lawmakers had moved to Argentina seeking refuge.

Also that year, the body of former Bolivian president Juan José Torres was also found near the Argentine capital, shot three times in the neck. The leftist military officer had been living in exile since he was overthrown in 1971 by the dictator Hugo Banzer.

Orlando Letelier, who served as foreign minister in the administration of Salvador Allende – overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973 – was assassinated in Washington in September 1976, and Uruguayans Lilián Celiberti, her children and Universindo Rodríguez were kidnapped in November 1978 in Brazil and handed over to military authorities in Montevideo.

These are just some of the better-known Operation Condor cases. One of the few survivors was Uruguayan Sara Méndez, kidnapped in Argentina in July 1976 with her 20-day-old infant. The attackers stole the baby, and it took 25 years for Méndez to be reunited with her son.

Members of the military juntas that ruled Argentina during the dictatorship were convicted in 1985 for human rights violations, but later pardoned in 1989 and 1990 by then-president Carlos Menem. In addition, two amnesty laws were passed in the mid-1980s, letting lower-ranking members of the military off the hook.

However, Operation Condor and charges of systematic illegal "adoption" of young children of political prisoners and the "disappeared" were not covered by the amnesty laws or the pardon.

In an interview with IPS, lawyer Alberto Pedroncini, representing six Argentine plaintiffs, explained that the Operation Condor case was allowed to proceed under the charge of "illegal deprivation of liberty, in the context of a policy of forced disappearance of people."

Thus, the charges were based on an international law that supersedes Argentina&#39s jurisdiction – the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons.

To strengthen their case, the lawyers established a multinational team including at least one plaintiff for each country involved. They argued that pardons cannot be given for ongoing crimes, such as that of the disappearance of persons, and the court agreed.

"We also argued that the crime was sanctioned by an agreement reached by the heads of state of these countries, and that because the case involves victims from all of the countries, it must be tried under international law, not simply Argentine law," explained Pedroncini. In 2004 the court ordered the accused to stand trial on charges of forced disappearance, later adding the charge of illicit association with intent to commit a crime.

Two years later, in July 2006, an appeals court in Argentina upheld the request to prosecute the accused – some 20 former top leaders and agents of the Argentine regime. The court ruled that the coordination alone of such an operation was, in and of itself, "a crime against humanity."

The appeals court upheld the charge of "illicit association for the forced disappearance of persons" as well as the applicability of the Inter-American Convention. It also recognised the Argentine justice system&#39s authority to intervene in the investigation of Operation Condor in all of the areas where it was carried out.

The ordered measures included prosecution and preventive detention for Videla – who served as Argentina&#39s president between 1976 and 1981 – and other former military brass, including Albano Harguindeguy, interior minister under Videla, Antonio Bussi, former governor of the northern Tucumán province, and Jorge Rovere, the former second in command of the First Army Corps.

Also tried were former planning minister Ramón Díaz Bessone, former army chief Cristino Nicolaides, and the former head of the Third Army Corps, Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, along with nine lower-ranking officers.

In addition, the courts issued an international arrest warrant for former Chilean dictator Pinochet (1973-1990), and the heads of his regime&#39s now-defunct secret police (DINA) – former generals Manuel Contreras and Pedro Espinoza.

Warrants had also been issued for ex-dictators Banzer (1971-1978) and Alfredo Stroessner, of Paraguay (1954-1989), and former commander-in-chief of the Uruguayan army Julio César Vadora, now all deceased.

The warrants also named other top Paraguayan police and military officials, as well as Uruguayan agents who worked at the notorious clandestine detention and torture centre in Buenos Aires known as "Automotores Orletti", where many Argentine and some Uruguayan political prisoners were taken, such as the daughter-in-law of Argentine poet Juan Gelman, María Claudia Irureta Goyena, kidnapped in August 1976.

"We wanted to establish an investigative structure that would set a precedent and have an impact," said the lawyer, alluding to the broad network of implicated people, many of whom have never been prosecuted.

In addition to the testimony of multiple witnesses, the trial will include documentary evidence of "exceptional importance," said Pedroncini, referring to a U.S. State Department document declassified at the request of the Argentine court.

The document shows that in 1976 a Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) agent at the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires informed his superior in Washington that Operation Condor had been established, and named the six Southern Cone countries, while pointing to Argentina and Chile as the driving forces behind the strategy.

The report revealed that the regional intelligence centre would be based in Chile and that Operation Condor&#39s objective was the "elimination of subversives, Marxists and leftists" from the countries in the pact. The report stated that dissidents would be hunted down anywhere in the world.

The document includes written declarations that actions against opponents extended to "assassination."

Then there are the &#39Archives of Terror,&#39 discovered in 1992 in a Paraguayan police station, which provide proof of interrogations and torture carried out by Chilean and Argentine agents in Paraguay, and official Chilean information on DINA activities in Argentina.

Pedroncini called this evidence against the former dictators "a chilling portrait of the Videla-Pinochet alliance."

With all of this material, Judge Guillermo Montenegro is ready to proceed to oral trial. "There will be a flood of attacks from the military lawyers," predicted Pedroncini. "But we hope to reach the courtroom before the trial falls out of the public spotlight."

For this reason, he believes the Uruguayan courts should first respond to the requests to extradite the accused military officers. Extradition requests in other countries have not yet expired, although they face obstacles and there is a risk that some of the accused – all older than 70 – will die before facing justice.

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