Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Human Rights Trials Dangerous for Witnesses and Accused Alike

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Dec 14 2007 (IPS) - The poisoning death of an Argentine coast guard officer who was expected to be convicted of crimes against humanity Friday once again highlighted the lack of guarantees for moving ahead with human rights trials in Argentina.

Since the 2005 repeal of the two amnesty laws that let human rights violators from the 1976-1983 dictatorship off the hook, only four trials have been held – and there have already been two victims.

The first was Jorge Julio López, a key witness in one of the trials, who went missing 15 months ago.

The second was Héctor Febres, who was found dead in his cell on Dec. 10, just four days before he was to face a verdict for torture and forced disappearance committed at the dictatorship’s most notorious torture centre, the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA).

The autopsy results showed he had ingested large amounts of cyanide.

His wife and two grown children were arrested Friday. They had eaten dinner with him the night before his body was found. Two of the officers guarding him had been arrested earlier.

"We had hoped that Febres would talk today (Friday) before the sentence was handed down, and our doubt is whether he might have been killed because of that," Luis Bonomi, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the trial, told IPS.

Bonomi did not rule out the possibility of suicide. But in any case, he considered the death to be the responsibility of the coast guard, which was holding Febres in custody, the federal justice system, and the Interior Ministry, for failing to provide the necessary safeguards and protection.

Víctor Basterra, a witness who testified in the trial, warned that Febres may have been killed to silence him, because the officer could have provided information on the fate of the victims of forced disappearance and the stolen babies of political prisoners. Basterra also said there are groups that want to keep the human rights cases from being reopened.

Lawyers representing survivors and families of victims, and human rights organisations, have been unsuccessfully demanding witness protection measures and simplified, unified trials covering entire detention centres in order to avoid summoning the same victims of human rights abuses to testify over and over again in multiple cases.

They are also calling for human rights abusers to be held in ordinary prisons.

Some 400 members of the military and police are awaiting trial. More than one-third are under house arrest because they are over 70 years old. A similar proportion are being held in military facilities. The rest, a small minority, are in regular jails.

Since the trials were reopened, the lawyers for the plaintiffs have been demanding that the suspects be held in the Federal Penitentiary Service rather than in the custody of the same military forces that are the focus of the legal actions.

The Defence Ministry joined its voice to that demand this year, but the justice system has turned down the requests.

"The irony here is that the argument set forth by the courts in turning down our requests is that they are looking out for the safety of the detainees," said lawyer for the plaintiffs Rodolfo Yanzón, after he heard that the autopsy showed that Febres had been poisoned.

Febres, 66, died of a heart attack Monday in the two-room apartment, complete with bathroom, balcony, TV set and DVD player, where he was being held in a navy brig. The door to his "cell" was made of wood, and simply locked with a key.

"We are extremely concerned about this grave development," said Yanzón. "We believe his death was designed to send a ‘mafioso’ message to stop the trials, and we cannot help but link this to López’s disappearance."

Febres would have been the fourth man convicted of human rights abuses since the Supreme Court in 2005 struck down the two amnesty laws passed in the mid-1980s under the administration of Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989) because of military pressure that the government said was threatening democracy.

The first convicted human rights abuser was former police officer Julio Simón, sentenced to 25 years in prison in August 2006 in connection with a case of forced disappearance, and the second was former Buenos Aires police chief Miguel Etchecolatz, who was handed a life sentence on charges of genocide in September 2006.

The first victim of the new wave of trials disappeared during the prosecution of Etchecolatz.

López, a 77-year-old construction worker and activist who had been abducted and secretly held and tortured by the dictatorship, had testified that the former police chief was one of those responsible for his torture.

But the day before the sentence was read out, he disappeared, and has never been heard from again, despite an all-out effort by the authorities to find him.

The third convicted human rights abuser was Catholic priest and former police chaplain Christian Von Wernich, who was sentenced to life in prison in October on charges of being an accomplice to murder, torture and kidnapping.

The prosecution against Febres, who would have been the fourth convicted human rights abuser, began amidst controversy.

Lawyers for both the plaintiffs and the defendant and the office of the public prosecutor asked the Supreme Court to suspend the prosecution, arguing that it was an isolated trial against one single individual on charges involving just four cases of kidnapping and torture.

Febres was an intelligence agent who acted as a liaison during the dictatorship between the coast guard and the navy. He was known as one of the cruellest torturers in ESMA, where at least 5,000 political prisoners were held and tortured at some point, many of whom were thrown alive into the sea from airplanes.

The office of the public prosecutor demanded that the trial against Febres be held as part of a unified case against all ESMA torturers and their commanders, who number around 300, and that such a collective trial take into account all of the crimes committed in the clandestine torture camp.

But in a divided ruling, the Supreme Court allowed the case against Febres to go ahead.

After some 50 witnesses, mainly torture survivors, took the stand, prosecutor Mirna Goransky asked for a 25-year sentence for the accused. She stressed, however, that the four plaintiffs were not the only ESMA victims, that the number of crimes committed in that illegal detention centre were not limited to the ones being considered for the purposes of that specific trial, and that Febres was not the only perpetrator.

Torture survivor Manuel Franco testified in the trial that Febres took part in his abduction in the street in 1979. Franco was taken to ESMA, where he was brutally tortured.

"I heard Febres tell them to turn up the voltage on the electric shock machine," he told the court.

Later, he said that in ESMA he saw many people who never reappeared. "I appreciate this trial, but I am surprised that only Febres is being accused here, and for so few cases," he remarked.

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