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Argentina, an Example for Prosecuting Franco-Era Crimes?

Tito Drago

MADRID, Apr 22 2010 (IPS) - Argentina is an example for Spaniards to bear in mind as they investigate crimes committed during the 1939-1975 dictatorship of general Francisco Franco, says Emilio Silva, head of the Spanish Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory (ARMH).

Silva took part in the Madrid launch of the book “Alejandro, por siempre…amor” (Alejandro, forever… love) by Taty Almeida, one of the founders, and now the head, of the Argentine human rights group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo – Founding Line.

Almeida, who said that her father, grandfather, uncles, brothers and some of her sons were in the armed forces, explained that her son Alejandro Martín, a leftwing activist, was seized at his home by the security forces in 1975 at the age of 20 and never seen again.

Forced disappearances of this kind had already begun to occur even before the start of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, when they became widespread.

At that time, the widow of former president Juan Domingo Perón, María Estela Martínez – known to the world as Isabel Perón – was president. She was ousted by the 1976 coup d’état and held under house arrest for five years by the dictatorship. She has lived in Madrid since her release.

The book, presented Tuesday night in the Spanish capital, contains poems and writings by Alejandro Martín. It was published in Buenos Aires in 2008, after his mother discovered the manuscripts when she was sorting through a large number of boxes stored by her family.


“We must carry on fighting for the truth, and for the right to bury our dead,” Almeida said, with tears in her eyes. In recent years, she added, forensic anthropologists have recovered some remains, and “those bones speak and can lead to knowledge of where and by whom they were killed.”

She refuses to say that her son is dead. “He is detained-disappeared,” she says, because to consider him dead she would have to see his body.

She stressed that the watchword of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, which commemorates its 33rd anniversary on Apr. 30, is “¡con vida los llevaron, con vida los queremos!” (they were taken alive, we want them back alive!), and that the mothers will only accept that their children are dead when the perpetrators admit to having killed them.

According to official figures, more than 10,000 people were forcibly disappeared in Argentina, but human rights organisations claim the true number is about 30,000, based on testimony by the victims’ relatives and investigations.

In 1996, Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón opened prosecutions that led in some cases to trials for crimes perpetrated during the Argentine dictatorship and the 1973-1990 military dictatorship in Chile.

Garzón acted under international law, which states that no statute of limitations applies to crimes against humanity and that they cannot be amnestied, and under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which stipulates that when they are not tried in the country where they were committed, they can be prosecuted in any country.

Argentine lawyer Carlos Slepoy, who lives and practices in Madrid, said that in response to Garzón’s actions, “the favour should be returned” by investigating, outside of Spain, the crimes of the Franco era.

Almeida stated clearly, to loud applause from those at the book launch, that not only should members of the armed forces be investigated and prosecuted, but also politicians, members of the business community and the Catholic Church hierarchy, some of whom were active accomplices of the dictatorship.

She added, though, that “priests who followed Christ’s teachings, and kept one eye on God and the other on the people, should be remembered and honoured,” referring to clergy who were persecuted by the dictatorship in Argentina for defending human rights. The Argentine activist told IPS that recent declarations by Pope Benedict XVI about clergy who supported the Argentine dictatorship were “inconceivable, coming from someone who claims to defend human rights.”

The pontiff “only said that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio,” accused of complicity with the abduction and torture of two priests during the military regime, “was a lost sheep, and no penalty has been imposed on him by the Church,” Almeida said.

On Apr. 14, Slepoy and human rights groups filed genocide charges in a federal court in Argentina for the 1936 murders in Spain of two mayors, Elías García Holgado and Severino Rivas, invoking the principle of universal justice.

The two men were among the victims of pro-Franco forces during the 1936-1939 Spanish civil war.

Among other legal instruments, Slepoy appealed to the United Nations Convention against Torture, approved in 1984 and in force since 1987, which has been ratified by Argentina, Spain and more than a hundred other countries.

The Convention establishes that, when there is reliable information about cases of torture occurring in one of the states party, the accused persons can be tried in court in a different state party.

ARMH’s Silva harshly criticised the Supreme Court’s Apr. 7 announcement that it would try Garzón on charges of overreaching his powers by attempting to investigate atrocities committed under Franco, which were amnestied in 1977.

Noting that socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had said that Franco “has already been judged by history,” Silva asked: “What would people in Argentina, where members of the dictatorship have been put on trial, think of that statement?” He said that the prosecution of Garzón for attempting to establish the whereabouts of some 114,000 people forcibly disappeared under Franco is occurring because there has been no accountability in Spain for the human rights crimes of the past, which have merely been ignored.

At the conclusion of the book launch, Spanish actress Lucía Álvarez read the last poem Alejandro wrote, translated roughly as: “Until forever, my love / until forever, my comrades / winter brings fierce cold / and the barricades are waiting / the military are waiting too / until the final victory / in life or in death.”

The entire audience rose to their feet and shouted, over and over again, “Presente! Presente!” meaning Alejandro was present in their midst.

The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo – Founding Line split off from the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Association because of dissent over the latter group’s increasing politicisation.

 
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