Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Delayed Justice for Dictatorship Crimes

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 19 2009 (IPS) - Trials for human rights crimes committed by the 1976-1983 dictatorship in Argentina, reopened four years ago after amnesty laws were struck down, are moving at such a slow pace that so far only 50 people have been convicted. At this rate it is estimated proceedings will continue for another 15 years.

“The problem is that the sheer scale of what happened is diluted that way,” prosecutor Eduardo Auat, head of the unit for coordination and monitoring of cases of human rights violations under state terrorism, which is in charge of facilitating and expediting the trials being held all over the country, told IPS.

Auat advocates the grouping of cases by clandestine detention centre, or by some other criterion, to avoid each suspect being tried one case at a time, creating an endless parade of defendants and witnesses in a piecemeal trickle of trials that “conspires against a view of the big picture,” he said.

“We have asked the judges to combine connected cases, which is a useful instrument permitted in the Criminal Code, but not all of them have agreed,” he said.

“Combining the cases allows trials to be better managed, improves conditions for the defendants, who do not have to keep coming and going to the courts, and enables better protection of witnesses,” he said.

He was referring to the possibility of bringing together charges from different cases against the same defendant, and combining lawsuits according to the clandestine detention centre in which the alleged crimes took place, or the army corps involved, or by province, in order to “ensure major trials” in each jurisdiction.

Two years ago the Supreme Court created a unit for assistance and monitoring of cases of forced disappearance, but it never found a way through the maze of red tape and other hurdles that delay the lawsuits. It also lacks human resources and defence lawyers are using a lot of delaying tactics, judicial sources say.

According to a report on the status of cases of human rights violations committed during the dictatorship, published by the prosecutors’ unit in July, legal proceedings “are being consolidated and are advancing,” but there are “difficulties.” The report records 588 prosecutions out of a total of about 1,000 cases, and 44 convictions.

Among those already under arrest, some of whom are under house arrest due to their advanced age or for health reasons, is Antonio Domingo Bussi, former head of the forces of the dictatorship in the northwestern province of Tucumán, former head of the Third Army Corps Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, and former army chief Cristino Nicolaides.

Also convicted for kidnapping, torture and murder were army chaplain Cristian von Wernich, as well as former police chief Miguel Etchecolatz, whose sentencing in 2006 coincided with the disappearance of a key witness against him, Jorge Julio López, whom he was responsible for kidnapping during the dictatorship. López has not been seen since.

The verdict on Aug. 12 in the trial of retired general Santiago Omar Riveros and five other military officers brought the number of convictions to 50.

When the Supreme Court declared the amnesty laws for crimes committed during the dictatorship unconstitutional in 2005, it paved the way for reopening trials of those accused of serious human rights violations during the regime installed by the 1976 coup d’état led by Jorge Videla, who is among those facing prosecution.

The “due obedience” and “full stop” laws, as they are known, were approved in 1986 and 1987 under pressure from military uprisings, and put thousands of members of the police and armed forces out of reach of the law. They were overturned by parliament in 2001.

After Néstor Kirchner became Argentine president in 2003, he also encouraged the trials by expressing the political will to see justice done. He was succeeded in 2007 by his wife, President Cristina Fernández; both of them belong to the centre-left sector of the Justicialista (Peronist) Party (PJ).

In 2007 the Supreme Court repealed the pardon granted in 1990 by then rightwing president Carlos Menem to the leaders of the dictatorship who had been sentenced to life imprisonment or several years in prison five years earlier, including Videla. The Supreme Court ruled that Menem’s decision violated the constitution, because crimes against humanity cannot be pardoned.

There are documents and witnesses to some 10,000 forced disappearances during the de facto regime, but human rights organisations say the real figure is around 30,000.

Since 2005 nearly 1,000 legal proceedings that had been interrupted in the 1980s, or had not even begun, have been resumed. But as time passes, human rights groups warn that the pace of prosecutions is too slow, and unless it picks up, defendants and witnesses may die before the trials are over.

At the recent trial of Riveros, a member of the top brass of the First Army Corps which held over 4,000 illegal detainees, he was only charged with the 1976 kidnapping and torture of Iris Pereyra and her son Floreal Avellanedo, then aged 14.

Troops burst into their house looking for Avellanedo’s father, who bears the same name, a communist activist who had managed to escape shortly before.

The teenaged boy was murdered by their captors. One month after his kidnapping, on his 15th birthday, Avellanedo’s body came ashore on the Uruguayan side of the Rio de la Plata estuary. His hands and feet were bound and his body showed signs of torture. His mother was held in captivity for two years, but survived.

However, this was not the only crime attributed to Riveros, who is also suspected of the abduction of Laura Carlotto, the daughter of the leader of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, Estela Barnes de Carlotto. Laura was pregnant when she was kidnapped in 1977. She had a son in a military hospital, and was then murdered. The Grandmothers are still looking for him and hundreds more stolen babies like him.

In its annual report for 2009, released in May, the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) stresses that “important trials” took place in 2008 which led to 30 convictions. That is an improvement on the number of sentences handed down in 2007, but the trials are still going “alarmingly slowly,” according to the human rights group.

The CELS report indicates that even at the rate achieved in 2008, the best since the courts resumed work on these cases, “the trials will not be over until 2024.” And it adds: “The delay, to date, has allowed 201 agents of repression to die unpunished.”

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