Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Argentine Judges Delay Justice for Dirty War Criminals

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 22 2010 (IPS) - Recent convictions of those responsible for torture and disappearances during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina have been praised by human rights organisations. But for every case that comes to trial there are many more facing long delays, and the main hurdle, they say, is the judicial branch itself.

A torrent of trials for crimes against humanity committed under the dictatorship was reactivated in the second half of this decade, when amnesty laws and pardons were struck down. However, verdicts have been reached for only 75 of the 1,422 accused so far; 68 were found guilty and sentenced, and the rest were acquitted.

The verdict that has drawn the most public attention is that of 82-year-old former general Reynaldo Bignone, appointed in 1982 as president of the military junta for the last year of the dictatorship. He was sentenced Tuesday to 25 years in a common prison, for torture and illegal detentions committed at the Campo de Mayo army base in 1977 when he was commander of Military Institutes.

“The judicial branch is mainly responsible for the delays. There are cases of complicity with the dictatorship, because certain sectors entrenched in federal power want to guarantee impunity,” lawyer Andrea Pochak, deputy director of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), told IPS.

CELS, a non-governmental organisation that monitors prosecutions for human rights violations, denounced “sabotage by some members of the judicial branch” in its March report. It also warned that magistrates are delaying trial procedures on the assumption that the cases will be discontinued, because of the death of the accused or other reasons.

The warning coincides with a statement this week by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, based in New York, which welcomed the trials for human rights violations in Argentina, but criticised the slow pace of prosecutions, especially in some provinces like Mendoza.

Pochak admitted the Human Rights Committee was right. “Nowadays, Mendoza is our main concern. Because of complicity, some judges delay the prosecutions and leave the trials in limbo, waiting for the accused to die (of old age) before justice can be done,” she complained.

The lawyer said there were other difficulties, apart from complicity, that hindered the efficient prosecution of these cases.

“The federal jurisdiction is generally slow, not only for these cases, and it is not accustomed to trials of this magnitude,” she said.

Nor have criteria been agreed to combine the trials, which would speed up the process and allow the trials to be completed in two or three years, rather than the two decades that CELS fears they will take.

In 2005 the Supreme Court declared the “full stop” and “due obedience” laws enacted in the late 1980s to be unconstitutional, and in 2007 it repealed the pardon granted in 1990 to several of the dictatorship’s top commanders by then president Carlos Menem (1989-1999).

The Supreme Court rulings, which confirmed parliamentary repeal of these laws during the government of president Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), made it possible to reopen the cases involving forced disappearances. Human rights organisations estimate the number of disappeared to be 30,000, although the official figure is less than half that.

The Public Prosecutor’s Unit for Coordinating and Monitoring Cases of Human Rights Violations during the Period of State Terrorism has long maintained that no special laws are needed to speed the trials, but better “administration of justice”.

One of the prosecutors in charge of the unit, Eduardo Auat, told IPS that combining trials “is permitted by the criminal code”. Rather than undermining the rights of the accused, the reverse is true, he said.

Combining cases prevents a succession of trials of the same defendant from taking place over an extended period. However, the prosecutor admitted that not all judges accept the arrangement, and said some of them were unwilling to use these procedures.

Trials relating to the same illegal detention centre, or to the same accused individual, could be grouped together and dealt with in a single trial. Cases brought on behalf of the same victims could also be combined, in order to avoid multiple appearances of witnesses and survivors in different courts.

CELS points out that 71 percent of the prosecutions are currently bogged down at the investigation stage. “A few cases are held up waiting for trials to be combined, due to problems with marshalling the legal resources of the defendant, or difficulties finding courtroom space,” Pochak says.

At present, two major trials are being held in the same courtroom in Buenos Aires, with the chamber being shared between the two benches.

On three days a week, hearings are being held in the trial concerning the former Naval School of Mechanics (ESMA), in which 19 persons are accused of crimes against 87 people who were illegally detained there. The alleged victims are only a few of the thousands of prisoners who passed through this Buenos Aires concentration camp, and 300 witnesses have been called to testify in court.

On the remaining two working days, the trial known as “ABO” (for the illegal Atlético, Banco and Olimpo detention centres) is being held in the same courtroom. Fifteen people are accused of committing crimes against 184 persons, and 400 witnesses have been called on to testify.

CELS says the slow pace of justice is “exasperating”. At this rate, the prosecution of those enjoying impunity “will never become consolidated”, in spite of the many institutional bottlenecks that have been successfully overcome in the past three decades, CELS spokespersons said.

In this context, the conviction and sentencing of Bignone and other former army generals in charge of Campo de Mayo, located in the north of Buenos Aires, is “very positive” because it “helps to strengthen democracy”, Pochak said.

Bignone’s charge-sheet includes burning records of the dictatorship, and issuing an amnesty decree absolving the military of their crimes. But he was not sentenced on these counts. The court convicted him for illegal raids, robbery, torture and detentions in four clandestine prisons under his command, with an estimated 5,000 detainees, many of whom were “disappeared” and have never been found.

Former generals Santiago Riveros and Fernando Verplaetsen and three other ex-army officers were sentenced along with the former dictator.

The Abuelas and Madres de Plaza de Mayo-Linea Fundadora, a group of mothers and grandmothers of “disappeared” victims of the regime who campaign for an end to impunity, welcomed the court’s decision that the sentences must be served in a common prison, in contrast to the house arrest or confinement in military units enjoyed by other dictatorship criminals, where there is a high risk they may escape.

In fact, the CELS report estimates that more than 40 people accused of crimes against humanity have escaped from justice at various times, some of them while remanded in custody, and are at large.

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