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RIGHTS -ARGENTINA: Twice Disappeared, Still Missing

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 17 2007 (IPS) - One year after the disappearance of a former victim of abduction and torture under Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, local human rights groups complain that the investigation into his current disappearance "is more of a formality than an effective inquiry."

That is how Guadalupe Godoy, Jorge Julio López’s lawyer, summed it up for IPS.

López was last seen on Sept. 18, 2006, during the trial of Miguel Etchecolatz, the former director of investigations for the Buenos Aires provincial police at the beginning of the dictatorship. López was a key witness in the trial.

Etchecolatz was sentenced to life in prison on charges of genocide one day after López disappeared. This was one of the first convictions of those responsible for atrocities following the annulment of two amnesty laws which had kept them out of the courts, in spite of being accused of the torture and disappearance of at least 30,000 people, according to human rights organisations.

López, a construction worker who was active in the Justicialista (Peronista) Party, was abducted and secretly held and tortured in several clandestine detention centres between 1976 and 1979. But unlike so many other political prisoners, he survived and was released. Thirty years later, his testimony demonstrated that detainees had been murdered by Etchecolatz and other former police officers.

This Tuesday, human rights organisations, political parties and trade unions will hold rallies across the country to demand that López be produced alive.

According to human rights lawyers, López’s decision to seek justice might have triggered his second kidnapping last year, at age 77, to intimidate potential witnesses in the ongoing trials of human rights abusers.

At the moment, the highest-profile trial is that of Christian Von Wernich, a Catholic priest accused of involvement in seven homicides, 42 kidnappings and at least 30 cases of torture of detainees, both men and women.

The first prosecution of a former member of the navy, who operated in the dictatorship’s largest clandestine torture centre, the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), is expected to begin in October.

The fact remains that López has not been seen for a whole year. In late December 2006, another witness was kidnapped, but his fate was a happier one. Luis Gerez, 50, also a construction worker, had testified as a survivor and witness in another trial and was abducted, but he appeared three days later, after being beaten.

The strongest lead that the justice system and lawyers are working on is that López was kidnapped by former police and military officers close to Etchecolatz. Last week, federal judges ordered a number of searches to be carried out related to a group of Etchecolatz’s cronies who may have been involved in the abduction.

One of them, Oscar Chicano, formerly Etchecolatz’s secretary, was recognised by López’s relatives and friends as having been frequenting the same meeting places as López in the days leading up to his disappearance. It is thought Chicano might have been gathering intelligence on López’s movements as a prelude to his capture.

At least four civilians have testified that López was kidnapped to force him to change his testimony, and that when he refused, he was killed the same day of his abduction. It was also established that a former collaborator of Etchecolatz, a woman, was one of López’s neighbours.

López’s family says he is the first victim of forced disappearance since the restoration of democracy in Argentina.

"We have maintained from the start that López was kidnapped and that state security forces were involved in his disappearance. But the government lacks the political will to move ahead on this, and when they see that the police are involved they become sluggish and secretive," said Godoy, a member of the Centre of Professionals for Human Rights (CEPRODH).

Godoy complained that there were constant leaks of information and leads, which meant that searches and other actions ordered by the judges failed to bear fruit.

The authorities reject such allegations. On the eve of the anniversary, the government of the province of Buenos Aires reported that the police had followed innumerable leads, analysed phone calls and other communications, carried out searches and investigated tip-offs, as well as offering a reward for information leading to López’s whereabouts.

López’s wife Irene believes that he is dead. "Too much time has passed. Who would be holding him? How would he survive this long? He was taking medication, he had high blood pressure," she said in an interview published on the weekend by the newspaper Página 12.

"Nobody can deny the symbolic value of many of the Néstor Kirchner government’s gestures towards human rights and trials of those who committed atrocities, but if the gestures are only for effect, they have their limits," said Godoy, who is demanding a state policy to move forward with the trials against human rights abusers.

When he took office in May 2003, Kirchner showed a willingness to make headway with the trials, which had been brought to a halt in the mid-1980s by the amnesty laws passed during the administration of Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989), under duress from military pressure and threats.

Argentina’s present centre-left government also decided to convert ESMA into a museum, and declared Mar. 24 a national holiday to mark the anniversary of the 1976 coup d’état, among other moves applauded by the organisations representing victims’ families.

But human rights organisations are calling for policies to ensure the safety of witnesses, who have been coming forward to testify in court since the amnesty laws were finally struck down in 2005.

According to a report submitted by the Attorney General’s Office to the Supreme Court this month, there are delays in close to 800 human rights cases, because of the avalanche of trials that started to accumulate rapidly after the repeal of the amnesty laws.

The report notes that many witnesses are to testify in a number of different cases, and that some of the accused also have to appear in several trials. Greater efficiency and more resources are needed, as the bottleneck is a hassle for witnesses and hampers their protection, it adds.

"The government did not fully gauge the implications of reopening that chapter of history," Godoy said. "At the rate we’re going, it’ll take another 30 years for justice to be done. It has acted very irresponsibly, especially so when López disappeared and authorities spent months thinking that he’d just got lost."

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