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

RIGHTS-PARAGUAY: President Apologises to Victims of Dictatorship

David Vargas

ASUNCIÓN, Aug 28 2008 (IPS) - Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo apologised Thursday in the name of the state to the victims of human rights violations committed by the 1954-1989 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner.

The testimony of thousands of victims was compiled in the final report of the Truth and Justice Commission, the result of four years of work, which was presented Thursday in Asunción.

“I ask forgiveness in the name of the Paraguayan nation, for so many injustices to which you were subjected, forgiveness for every single trace of physical and emotional pain,” said Lugo, moved to tears, during the presentation of the report.

The more than 1,000-page report contains testimony from 2,130 people on cases of torture, murder, abduction and persecution committed during the de facto regime and the following 14 years, described here as “transition to democracy,” up to 2003, when the Truth and Justice Commission was created by law.

Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who took office on Aug. 15, ending six decades of rule by the Colorado Party, promised to ensure the implementation of the 178 recommendations that the Truth and Justice Commission made to the three branches of the state.

The recommendations include the creation of a National Secretariat of Human Rights, with the rank of a ministry, to follow the human rights cases that the Commission hopes the judiciary will begin to prosecute based on the evidence provided by the report.

“As of this moment the justice system is facing an immense challenge,” said the president, addressing Supreme Court Chief Justice Víctor Núñez.

Núñez was unable to make his own speech, as he was booed off the stage by the audience, who shouted “pyrague” (“informant” in Guaraní), a term used against those who collaborated with the intelligence services during the Stroessner regime.

The report puts the number of direct and indirect victims of the dictatorship at 128,076, including victims of forced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, detention, torture, rape and political exile.

Of that total, 19,682 were the victims of illegal detention, 59 were the victims of extrajudicial execution, and 337 were “disappeared.”

The Commission estimates that 3,470 people were forced to flee into exile for political reasons, although it acknowledges that this figure “falls short of the reality of this painful human rights violation.”

An estimated 95 percent of the political prisoners were tortured, and at least half received death threats, according to the report.

Torture included electric shock to different parts of the body, near suffocation with plastic bags or in tubs filled with filthy liquids, being burned or cut, and being forced to watch the torture of other people.

Torture was “the main instrument of social control used by the military regime,” and mainly affected members of political parties and social movements, especially peasant farmers, says the report.

“We want to specifically underscore the sexual violence that was used as a repressive strategy, aimed at demonstrating the aggressors’ power and dominance over their victims,” said Bishop Mario Medina, the chairman of the Truth and Justice Commission.

The largest number of cases documented by the report involve sexual abuse of girls between the ages of 12 and 15 at the hands of members of the military and the police and civilian agents of the dictatorship.

It states that many women suffered human rights abuses because they were the relatives of the victims of political persecution, belonged to communities that suffered attacks, or were leaders or members of civil society groups.

Bishop Medina, a leading figure in the struggle against the dictatorship, said that although the figures “fail to reflect the pain of the Paraguayan people in its full dimension,” they “give us a sense of the magnitude.”

“The report is also a contribution to the necessary transformations of the state to prevent future violations and generate awareness that will make it possible to dismantle the institutional, political, military, police and cultural mechanisms and structures that made the abuses possible,” said Medina.

The Commission hopes that the report will provide the justice system with the elements needed to bring legal action against those responsible for human rights abuses, for which there is no statute of limitations under Paraguayan law.

To that end, one of the five parts into which the report is divided identifies human rights abusers by their full name. The list includes politicians, members of the police and armed forces, and members of the regime’s network of informants.

The Municipal Theatre of Asunción, where the report was presented, was packed with representatives of social organisations and leaders of the struggle against the dictatorship.

Human rights activist Martín Almada, a winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize, recalled the atrocities committed by the Stroessner regime under Operation Condor, 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, torturing and eliminating left-wing opponents.

The report states that the largest number of cases of forced disappearance occurred in the 1960s, when armed resistance groups operated in Paraguay, and in the 1970s, under Operation Condor and during the clampdown on the Agrarian Leagues, Christian base communities set up by poor farmers that were violently repressed and in some cases virtually wiped out.

Of the 337 victims of forced disappearance, 220 were “disappeared” in Paraguay, 102 in Argentina and seven in Brazil, says the report, which adds that 41 people were the victim of extrajudicial executions in Paraguay, 17 in Argentina and one in Uruguay.

Ananías Maidana, head of the Paraguayan Communist Party, one of the main targets of the “dirty war”, stressed the responsibility shared by several U.S. governments, which supported the Stroessner regime.

The report also documents crimes against humanity committed against the Aché, Ayoreo, Maskoy and Toba Qom indigenous communities, such as extrajudicial executions, whose victims included children and the elderly, and the forced displacement of communities when their land was seized.

In one of the chapters, on ill-gotten land, the Commission examines title deeds granted by government agrarian reform institutions.

“One of the recommendations that I can give, at the age of 70, is that everyone should work together to make sure that the dictatorship does not return. People need to know what really happened, and they must not forget,” Norberto Acosta, who was detained in Asunción in 1976 and tortured in the Department of Investigations of the National Police, told IPS.

“Sometimes I hear people say that life was better during the dictatorship, but I certainly wasn’t living better since I didn’t have freedom,” he said.

The report is titled “Anive hagua oiko”, a phrase in Guaraní, Paraguay’s second official language, which roughly translates as “Never Again”.

The report was drawn up with the assistance of government institutions, civil society organisations, international aid groups and the embassies and consulates of Germany, Chile, Switzerland and Argentina.

Stroessner, who was overthrown in a February 1989 coup, was given political asylum in Brazil, where he died two years ago.

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