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

ARGENTINA: Controversy Over Court Order to Release Rights Abusers

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Dec 19 2008 (IPS) - An Argentine court order to release on bail nearly 20 officers accused of committing human rights abuses during the 1976-1983 dictatorship shows the slow-moving justice system’s limitations in dealing with cases against those prosecuted for crimes against humanity, say activists.

The decision was handed down Thursday. But an appeal has already been filed by prosecutors and admitted, which means they cannot actually be released until the Supreme Court rules on the matter.

The order for the officers’ release was based on the number of years they have spent in prison without a sentence.

It drew harsh statements from the government of Cristina Fernández. The president herself said the court decision was a “disgrace.

The decision also came under fire from human rights groups that have been working for over 30 years to bring to justice those responsible for the “dirty war” against dissidents, in which 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared, according to activists.

The head of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a leading human rights group, said it was “outrageous,” and “clearly demonstrates that the justice system wants impunity” for those accused of human rights abuses.

The Grandmothers, the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) and other local human rights groups issued a statement questioning the legal system’s capacity to effectively handle the roughly 800 cases that have piled up in the courts since the amnesty laws were annulled.

The two amnesty laws approved in the mid-1980s put an end to trials against military human rights abusers. But in 2001, the courts began to declare the laws unconstitutional in legal rulings, and in 2005 the Supreme Court finally annulled them.

“Since cases began to be reopened in 2001, neither judges nor prosecutors, with very few exceptions, have shown skill and agility in the investigations, which have dragged on in an unreasonable manner,” says the human rights groups’ statement protesting the court ruling.

The resolution was also criticised by Justice Minister Anibal Fernández, who said it was “one of the worst and most conservative decisions taken by the judiciary.”

Supreme Court Justice Carlos Fayt accused legislators of blocking laws that would speed up the trials. But the lawmakers who have opposed such initiatives say they could become obstacles to guarantees of due process.

By a two-to-one vote, a three-judge panel in Argentina’s highest criminal court, the National Criminal Cassation Chamber, ordered the release of nearly 20 officers held since 2003, based on the three-year time limit for holding suspects in pretrial detention.

The judges said in their decision that local jurisprudence and international conventions set time limits for pretrial detention to protect the rights of suspects. But the dissenting judge said the prisoners in question should remain behind bars because of the gravity of the charges they face.

“The court decision shows that in Argentina, the justice system has not been purged, and that functionaries from the times of the dictatorship are still active,” human rights lawyer Mónica González told IPS.

In 2007, González and other lawyers involved in the human rights cases presented a report to the Council of Magistrates – which oversees the judiciary – criticising the National Criminal Cassation Chamber for delays in human rights cases.

Then President Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) also lambasted the Chamber last year, accusing it of delaying the course of justice by accepting endless appeals and legal maneuvers by the defence lawyers representing those accused of human rights violations.

The human rights lawyers who presented the report last year said the Chamber was a bottleneck slowing down human rights cases.

They also said the judges sitting on the Chamber, many of whom are close to former members of the dictatorship, had eased their normally strict criteria for releasing suspects on bail when it came to members of the military facing charges of human rights violations.

González said “We presented the report, but the Council of Magistrates has it in a drawer. All it achieved was to give a final shove to push out (Alfredo) Bisordi,” the former president of the Chamber, who had called a victim of human rights abuses a “terrorist criminal.”

Since the widely-criticised Bisordi stepped down, he has dedicated himself to acting as defence counsel for people accused of torturing and killing opponents of the regime.

With respect to Thursday’s order to release the prisoners, González said “the decision to release a suspect on bail is strictly based on the laws in the case of common crimes, but here we are talking about people accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.”

Crimes against humanity are covered by international conventions that have been incorporated into the Argentine constitution, and which state that those accused of such crimes should not be entitled to release on bail, she said.

“Nor can it be supposed that the detainees will cooperate with the justice system, because they have never done so,” she remarked.

The most high-profile officer whose release was ordered Thursday is former Navy captain Alfredo Astiz, who worked in intelligence in the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), one of the dictatorship’s most notorious torture centres.

Astiz, who has been dubbed the “Blond Angel of Death”, infiltrated the group of relatives of the regime’s first victims of forced disappearance, in 1977.

Posing as the brother of a victim of forced disappearance, Astiz, under the name of Gustavo Niño, attended the meetings of the women who later founded the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights groups, and accompanied them on their weekly walks around the Plaza de Mayo square in front of the presidential palace, in which they demanded to know what had happened to their sons and daughters.

His intelligence work led to the kidnapping and disappearance of Azucena Villaflor, one of the founders of the group, and French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet. Astiz was convicted in absentia in France in 1990 in the case of the two nuns.

He also faces charges in the deaths of a 17-year-old Swedish-Argentine girl, Dagmar Hagelin, and journalist Rodolfo Flash, among others.

Hagelin’s father Ragmar said in Sweden that the order to release Astiz and the others was “a slap in the face for the Argentine people.”

He said legal instruments and benefits should be used very differently in the case of crimes against humanity, and added that the dictatorship’s justice system had clearly not been purged.

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