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

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: New Methods to Identify Dictatorship’s Missing Children

Sebastián Lacunza

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 30 2008 (IPS) - DNA testing and court resolutions in Argentina have been key factors in speeding up the work of establishing the true identities of the children who were stolen from their parents, victims of forced disappearance, and given to other families to raise during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

The two most recently resolved cases, announced this month, brought the total number of cases in which young people have discovered their original identities to 95. Their identities were restored with the help of one of the country’s most prominent human rights groups, Abuelas (Grandmothers) of the Plaza de Mayo, which was set up to track down their grandchildren.

The children were either kidnapped with their parents, mainly young leftists, who were tortured and “disappeared” by the regime, or born into captivity in clandestine detention centres. The babies or toddlers were then given in adoption to childless military families or sympathisers, or abandoned on the street or in orphanages.

Many of the young people who the Abuelas have helped discover their real identities have found the experience especially traumatic, when they find out that the people who they regarded as their parents were actually involved in the disappearance of their biological mother and father.

“We are very respectful of how fast each person can process things. Many of the grandchildren who initially refused or were reluctant to undergo DNA testing, but later did so, stop by the offices of the Abuelas every day now,” Alan Iud, assistant coordinator of the human rights group’s team of lawyers, told IPS.

Of the seven young people whose true identities were established this year, six of the cases were made possible by novel judicial decisions.


Given the persistent refusal to undergo DNA testing by a number of young people suspected of being the sons or daughters of some of the dictatorship’s 30,000 victims of forced disappearance, federal judges in Argentina began in 2006 to order searches of their homes, to find combs, brushes, toothbrushes or underwear, in order to obtain DNA to carry out the tests.

The tests by the National Genetic Data Bank (BNDG) can determine genetic ancestry with 99.99 percent accuracy.

Critics argue that the seizure of DNA material is an invasion of privacy, but legal experts say it is a question of balancing the right to privacy with the need to clarify serious human rights violations and cases of stolen children.

“We are the only DNA testing centre in the world created specially to clarify crimes against humanity,” said Belén Rodríguez, a biochemist who runs the BNDG, an internationally prominent centre that was created in Buenos Aires in 1987, during the presidency of Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989).

Rodríguez told IPS that “the technique used to identify DNA from skin cells shed by people on objects of everyday use was developed on the basis of the human genome project,” and Argentina has access to the most advanced methods.

Iud explained that in the case of “young people who have resisted undergoing the DNA test, once the judge has informed them of the results, they generally want to meet their (biological) family, and most of them say they feel a huge sense of relief, that it took a weight off their backs.”

The principal reason that these young people, who are today mainly in their late 20s and early 30s, refuse to undergo testing is to avoid providing evidence for legal action against the people they consider their parents. Some judges do not accept DNA testing based on genetic material that was seized in a search.

“The opinion of the grandchildren is very important, but that judicial interpretation is incorrect,” said Iud. “Although our priority is restoring the original identity, cases differ. If we’re talking about a human rights abuser who stole a child, rather than someone who acted in good faith, the courts must take action.”

In 2003, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled against forced blood tests, arguing that the individual had the right to decide.

“It is really painful when the search for the truth is subordinated to the victim’s relationship with the ‘appropriator’ (the person who took the child). Furthermore, there is also the right of the grandmother to know her grandchild,” said Iud.

The first case in which personal items seized in a search were used to establish the identity of a missing grandchild was that of Natalia Suárez, who was stolen and raised by Omar Alonso, a tango singer with ties to the police during the dictatorship.

Suárez, who at first resisted attempts to verify her identity, has now built a relationship with her biological family. Since then, eight out of 12 cases in which young people discovered their real identities were based on DNA tests carried out using samples seized in searches.

Since democracy was restored in 1983, a number of cases of missing grandchildren have drawn attention from the press, especially those instances in which the young people have refused to recognise their biological families.

One high profile case involved the Reggiardo twins, who were located in Paraguay living with Samuel Miara, a police officer who had taken them when their parents were killed by the regime. They have no relationship with their biological relatives, and remain loyal to the police officer – now in prison – and his wife, who raised them.

But there have also been a number of cases of successful family reunification, when the children had been adopted in good faith by couples who did not know their history.

That is the case of María de las Victorias Ruizi, who lives near the city of Rosario, 306 km northwest of Buenos Aires, where she was raised by her adoptive mother, who helped her in her search for the truth.

María de las Victorias’s two siblings, also stolen from their parents, have discovered their real identities as well.

Laura Ruiz did so this year thanks to DNA testing.

Her “appropriator”, Antonio Azic, was a member of a “task force” of the Navy School of Mechanics, one of the dictatorship’s biggest concentration camps, where according to witnesses he tortured political prisoners.

Azic is currently in prison, his face disfigured by a suicide attempt. He had also stolen Victoria Donda, who discovered her true identity in 2004 and is today a national legislator representing the Movimiento Libres del Sur, which supports centre-left President Cristina Fernández and backed her predecessor and husband, Néstor Kirchner.

The strides made in the efforts to locate the missing grandchildren signal a shift in political will on the part of the country’s leaders. After two military uprisings that endangered the democratic government of Alfonsín, the then president pushed through two amnesty laws, which put an end to prosecutions of human rights violators.

However, the laws clearly did not cover cases of “illegal appropriation” of the children of the “disappeared.”

Some analysts say the failure of such cases to be prosecuted in the courts had nothing to do with legal impediments but was linked to the lack of political will on the part of previous governments.

 
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