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ARGENTINA: Human Rights Trials Trigger Wave of Threats

Analysis by Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 4 2006 (IPS) - The reopening of human rights cases in Argentina as a result of the revocation of amnesty laws that let off the hook members of the police and military who took part in the 1976-1983 dictatorship&#39s "dirty war" against dissidents has triggered an unexpected wave of bomb and death threats aimed at intimidating witnesses, judges, lawyers and journalists.

In the past few weeks, bomb threats have led to evacuations of schools and universities, judges, prosecutors and reporters have received threatening letters and phone calls, survivors and the families of victims of the de facto regime have been threatened and beaten, and one key witness has even gone missing.

Nearly two decades have gone by since the late 1980s uprisings by junior officers who threatened to carry out a coup d&#39etat in reaction to the trials of soldiers and the imprisonment of former members of the dictatorship&#39s ruling junta.

Because of the military pressure on the administration of Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989), 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 of due obedience" was enacted in 1987, putting an end to prosecutions of anyone below the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

The members of the junta who had been tried and convicted were later pardoned by president Carlos Menem (1989-1999).

However, in June 2005, the Supreme Court found the amnesty laws unconstitutional, and human rights cases began to be reopened.

Now, democracy is no longer under threat, as it appeared to be in the late 1980s. There is no risk of a military coup, the armed forces are subordinate to civilian authority, and the military has been purged of almost all of the last remaining officers and troops who took part in the "dirty war", when thousands of people were tortured and fell victim to forced disappearance.

But centre-left President Néstor Kirchner has annoyed the military with the proactive stance he has taken on human right since he took office in May 2003. On his first day in office, he ordered 27 army generals, 13 admirals and 12 brigadier-generals into retirement, in an unprecedented purge of past human rights abusers from the military brass.

Today, the democratic system is being intimidated from the shadows, apparently by those who benefited from the impunity of the past and now, with the overturning of the amnesty laws, are beginning to be hauled back into court. "The past is not defeated," Kirchner said last week, referring to the disappearance of former political prisoner Jorge Julio López on Sep 17.

The 77-year-old López was a survivor of five different clandestine torture camps and a key witness in the trial in which former police commissioner Miguel Etchecolatz was sentenced on Sep. 19 to life in prison for kidnapping, torture and homicide.

"Every time they get a chance, they use it to show that they are still here," said the president, referring to the human rights abusers of the past. "Stay on the alert, Argentineans. These are efforts to intimidate those seeking the truth. We cannot allow a repeat of the past."

Since the amnesty laws were struck down, sectors linked to the armed forces – officers&#39 wives, retired officers and the families of victims of the guerrillas in the 1970s – have publicly defended what they still consider a "war" on subversion, without admitting to the human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship.

One of the most outspoken representatives of this camp, Cecilia Pando, wife of retired Major Rafael Mercado and leading spokesperson for the newly created Association of Families and Friends of Political Prisoners, even called for "a broad, generous amnesty" for members of the military who fought "subversives" during the regime.

In two trials held in the past two months, testimony by survivors, the families of victims, and witnesses has provided appalling details of human rights crimes including forced disappearance, torture, rape, and theft of babies.

In the case of Etchecolatz, a judge for the first time classified these crimes as part of a broader phenomenon of "genocide."

The bomb threats, beatings, death threats and other attempts to intimidate witnesses have begun to occur almost at the same pace at which cases are reopened.

Authorities have had to evacuate the University of Buenos Aires engineering department three times in the last few weeks, where former political prisoner Adriana Calvo, another key witness in the trial against Etchecolatz, teaches.

And last Thursday, the National University of Quilmes, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, was evacuated because of a bomb threat – the third evacuation in a week, according to university officials.

"Since the final stop and due obedience laws were annulled, public threats by those nostalgic for state terrorism have surged alarmingly," said writer and lawmaker Miguel Bonasso of the Bloque Convergencia, a party allied with the government.

The offices of the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ), a prominent international human rights group founded by Peace Nobel Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, were broken into. So was the home of the brother of José Poblete, a victim of forced disappearance whose fate was clarified this year in the first conviction of a former torturer – ex-police officer Julio Simón – since the amnesty laws were scrapped.

Anonymous leaflets also appeared around the Casa de los Derechos Humanos, a human rights organisation in the northeastern province of Santa Fe. The leaflets read "Jorge López, desaparecido 30,001: who will be number 30,002?"

(Desaparecido is the term used to refer to victims of forced disappearance in Latin America. Human rights groups say 30,000 people were "disappeared" by Argentina&#39s de facto military regime).

If it is confirmed that López&#39s disappearance was a response to his courageous testimony and an effort to intimidate the witnesses in the roughly 1,000 cases that are in the process of being reopened, it would be the most serious incident in the new wave of threats.

Interior Minister Anibal Fernández said "there are very clearly defined sectors seeking to block the advancement of investigations into crimes against humanity."

And Attorney General Esteban Righi asked judges handling human rights cases for a list of witnesses who will be called on to testify in future trials, in order to provide them with protection.

The governor of Buenos Aires province, Felipe Solá, said he had not ruled out the possibility that police in his district were involved in López&#39s disappearance and, just in case, he forced around 60 into early retirement – thus purging police who were active in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Human rights organisations have little doubt that sectors linked to the military and police had something to do with López&#39s vanishing on the eve of Etchecolatz&#39s sentencing. Active-duty and retired members of the police and military who served during the regime are protected by security structures of which they often still form part.

The courts in La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires province, are investigating four anonymous threats to witnesses and victims&#39 families that occurred just before the sentencing of Etchecolatz.

Reporters have also been threatened, like Mónica Gutiérrez, who said she received a threat in the mail, and La Nación columnist Joaquín Morales Solá and editor of Perfil Jorge Fontevecchia.

Carlos Rozansky, a federal judge in La Plata involved in the case against Etchecolatz, also received an anonymous letter whose return address was "Third International Congress of Victims of Terrorism, Barcelona, Spain".

The message referred to Kirchner "and his gang of experienced criminals," and said "We know that you, directly or indirectly, are receiving pressure from the national government to act in accordance with the interests of those who are not seeking justice, but vengeance."

The letter, signed by "a group of Argentineans ready to fight for true justice," was also sent to other judges and prosecutors involved in human rights cases in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Catamarca, Chaco, Formosa, Mendoza, La Rioja, Salta and Tucumán..

The Supreme Court expressed "deep concern" Friday over the threats to judges and prosecutors, and demanded "due protection for witnesses."

"The state of law and the consequent independence of the judiciary cannot tolerate this kind of anti-democratic activity aimed at blocking the normal performance of the country&#39s institutions," stated the Court.

Federal prosecutor Jorge Auat, who is investigating the 1976 murders of 22 political prisoners in Chaco, known as the "Margarita Belén massacre", said the threatening letter, which he also received, "is based on the assumption that these cases are moving forward as a result of political pressure."

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