Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

Latin America Feels the “Garzon Effect”

Daniela Estrada*

SANTIAGO, Apr 19 2010 (IPS) - Latin America owes Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón, who is facing prosecution in his country for trying to investigate Franco-era abuses, for the groundbreaking invocation of legal principles that have led to trials for crimes against humanity in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Peru and Uruguay, human rights lawyers say.

Judge Baltasar Garzón Credit: Presidencia de Argentina

Judge Baltasar Garzón Credit: Presidencia de Argentina

Chilean lawyer Roberto Garretón coined the phrases “the Garzón effect” and “the Pinochet effect,” after the Spanish magistrate tried to extradite former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) from Britain in 1998 to try him for crimes against humanity committed during the 1973-1990 dictatorship he led.

Pinochet, who was arrested while recovering from surgery for a slipped disc in a London clinic, ended up spending more than 500 days under house arrest in the British capital until the government of that country released him on humanitarian grounds. After the dictator returned to Santiago, he faced legal action for human rights abuses and embezzlement, but he was never convicted.

In any case, prosecutions for murders, forced disappearances and torture committed by the dictatorship increased exponentially after 1998.

“The ‘Garzón effect’ means judges all over the world learned that it was possible to do justice” in the case of crimes against humanity, and “the ‘Pinochet effect’ means that it’s not a good idea for any human rights violator to travel,” Garretón, a former United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, told IPS.

In other words, the principle of universal justice began to be applied, according to which no amnesty or statute of limitations applies to crimes against humanity, whose perpetrators can be tried in any country if they are not prosecuted in the country where the crimes were committed.

But now Garzón is in the dock himself, on charges of overreaching his powers by attempting to clarify the fate of an estimated 114,000 victims of forced disappearance during Spain’s 1936-1939 civil war and the early years of the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco – crimes that were amnestied in 1977, two years after the dictator’s death.

The magistrate, who sits on the Audiencia Nacional – Spain’s highest criminal court – faces up to 20 years’ suspension from the bench in the case brought by far-right groups in Spain, which argue that his investigation violated the amnesty law.

“What Spain is doing now is a reversal of the Garzón effect,” said Garretón.

Spain’s “superjudge” is also facing trial in two other cases – the “Gurtel case” affecting the right-wing opposition People’s Party (PP), in which Garzón is accused of illegal wiretapping of the defendants facing corruption charges; and for dropping tax fraud charges against Santander Bank executives.

In the second case, Garzón was accused of receiving financing from the Santander Bank for his sabbatical year at New York University. The university has denied, however, that he received money – directly or indirectly – from the bank, which merely sponsored a few events there in which he participated.

“Garzón’s actions had extraordinary importance in the (2003) repeal” of Argentina’s two amnesty laws that let human rights violators off the hook, Argentine lawyer Carlos Slepoy told IPS. The lawyer lives in Spain, where he represents the families of victims of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

“The overturning of the amnesty laws, which occurred first in Congress (and was ratified by the Supreme Court in 2005) happened after Garzón sought the arrest and extradition of 46 former military and civilian officials of the regime, many of whom were high-ranking officers who enjoyed total impunity,” Slepoy said.

In response to the prosecution Garzón currently faces in Spain, Slepoy and other human rights lawyers brought a lawsuit on genocide charges in Argentina’s courts on behalf of the families of two former Spanish mayors who were killed by pro-Franco forces in Spain.

“Garzón’s actions that led to Pinochet’s arrest, and his attempt to try former Argentine officials were vital to the decision by Spain’s Audiencia Nacional to accept the case on genocide in Guatemala,” Benito Morales, a lawyer for the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation, told IPS.

In 2006, the Audiencia Nacional issued an international arrest warrant for the extradition to Spain of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt and seven other former Guatemalan military and civilian officials from his de facto regime, on charges of torture, state terrorism and genocide. None of the accused are in prison.

The lawsuit was originally filed in Spain in 1999 by Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize-winner and indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú and other survivors of the atrocities committed during the armed conflict.

Ríos Montt carried out a “scorched earth” campaign when he governed Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983, considered the bloodiest period of the 1960-1996 armed conflict that left more than 200,000 – mainly rural indigenous people – dead or “disappeared.”

According to Garretón, the door opened up by Garzón also influenced the Chilean court decision to extradite former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) to his country in 2007.

Last year, Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in prison for ordering killings and kidnappings by military intelligence, in connection with two massacres in which a total of 25 people were killed in 1991 and 1992.

The Chilean lawyer also said that without the “Garzón effect”, Uruguay would not have extradited three Uruguayan army officers to Chile in 2006. The three officers were involved in the kidnapping and murder of chemist Eugenio Berríos, who had worked for the Pinochet dictatorship’s secret police and whose body was found on a beach near the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, in 1995.

In Garretón’s view, that helped pave the way for the sentencing of former Uruguayan dictator Juan María Bordaberry (1973-1976) to 30 years in prison for violating the constitution when he backed a military coup that kept him in power for three more years (the dictatorship ended in 1985).

Human rights violators who have not escaped the principle of universal justice are former Chilean military prosecutor Alfonso Podlech and former Argentine navy officer Ricardo Cavallo, who worked at ESMA, the dictatorship’s largest and most notorious torture centre.

Podlech was arrested in 2008 in Spain and extradited to Italy, where he is on trial for the forced disappearance of former Chilean-Italian priest Omar Venturelli, while Cavallo was arrested in 2000 in Mexico and extradited first to Spain and then to Argentina, in 2008, where he is facing prosecution.

Garretón also mentioned the case of retired Uruguayan military officer Manuel Cordero, extradited in January from Brazil to Argentina to face trial for crimes against humanity committed under Operation Condor, a coordinated plan among the military regimes that ruled Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay in the 1970s and 1980s, aimed at tracking down, capturing and eliminating left-wing opponents.

And in Paris, 15 former military officers active in the Pinochet dictatorship are being tried in absentia for the forced disappearance of four Franco-Chileans.

*With additional reporting by Marcela Valente in Argentina and Danilo Valladares in Guatemala.

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