Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: No House Arrest for Elderly Former General

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jul 25 2008 (IPS) - Former Argentine General Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, one of the most notorious of the military commanders who led the “dirty war” waged by the country’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, was handed a life sentence Thursday for human rights violations committed 31 years ago.

A federal court in the north-central province of Córdoba found the 81-year-old Menéndez guilty for his role in the kidnapping, torture and death of four leftist activists in 1977, and waived his right to house arrest, to which he would normally be entitled because of his age.

The crowd gathered inside and outside the courthouse cheered the announcement of the verdict, and many broke down in tears. They were carrying signs with blown-up photos of loved ones forcibly disappeared and killed in Córdoba during the de facto regime, while they chanted “Murderer! Murderer!”

The former general, who will spend the rest of his life behind bars, was taken to a prison run by the penitentiary system rather than to a military lock-up, as in the case of other military human rights abusers.

Six other former military officers and one civilian were also sentenced Thursday, four of them to life in prison and three to between 18 and 22 years.

Menéndez was the commander of the Third Army Corps from 1975 to 1979, which had jurisdiction over 10 provinces in northwestern Argentina, including the La Perla concentration camp located 15 km from the provincial capital, where only 17 of a total 2,300 political prisoners survived.

Several of the survivors testified in the trial that began on May 27. “I was beaten, subjected to electric shock, kicked and dragged by my hair,” said Susana Sastre, who was held and tortured at La Perla for two years.

Although Menéndez and the others face legal charges in dozens of other cases as well, Thursday’s sentences involved the murders of Hilda Palacios, Humberto Brandalisis, Carlos Laja and Raúl Cardozo, four young members of the Revolutionary Workers Party who were kidnapped in Córdoba in November 1977.

A month later, “they were removed, with their hands bound, from La Perla, and shoved into a car, where they were shot,” Claudio Ordoz, lawyer for the Palacios family, told IPS. Their killers took the bodies to the Military Hospital, saying they had been killed in a firefight with the military.

They were buried in a Córdoba cemetery. When the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team exhumed several bodies in the cemetery, it identified Palacios’ corpse. The other bodies have not been identified.

“We provided a great deal of evidence, but one of the key witnesses was gendarme Carlos Beltrán, who was a guard at La Perla and confirmed the existence of the concentration camp and described the torture chambers and the fields where many of the detainees were shot to death,” said Ordoz.

Beltrán was cashiered from the army for refusing to shoot a pregnant political prisoner, who had been forced to dig her own grave before she was killed. The gendarme witnessed this and other shootings and identified one of the accused, former sergeant Luis Manzanelli, as the man who ordered the killings.

According to human rights groups, some 30,000 people fell victim to forced disappearance during the dictatorship.

In his final statement to the court, Menéndez justified the repression of “Marxist subversion,” describing it as “defensive efforts” in response to guerrilla attacks. He said Argentina “is the first country to bring victorious soldiers to trial.”

Completely unrepentant, the former general said “the terrorists who were illegal before are now legal” and “the guerrillas of the 1970s are now in power.”

But “I am confident that they will not be able to carry out their aim of imposing their authoritarian regime on us,” he added, to the indignation of the families of the dictatorship’s victims.

In the 1980s, Menéndez was implicated in 800 different lawsuits. In 1988 he was tried on charges of homicide, torture and the theft of babies. But two years later, he was pardoned, along with members of the ruling junta and other top commanders, by then president Carlos Menem (1989-1999).

Amnesty laws were also passed in the late 1980s, letting lower-ranking members of the military off the hook.

But the courts, driven by the victims’ families, continued investigating the whereabouts of the remains of the “disappeared” in “truth trials,” which helped accumulate evidence that has played a key role in prosecutions since the amnesty laws and pardons were declared unconstitutional.

Former police chief Miguel Etchecolatz, former police officer Julio Simón and former army chaplain Christian Von Wernich have been sentenced since the trials got underway again, while former navy officer Héctor Febres died of poisoning in prison just hours before he was to be sentenced.

This week, sentences began to be handed down to higher-ranking officers. On Monday, a 25-year prison term was confirmed for former army chief Cristino Nicolaides.

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