Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Witnesses in Danger

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 1 2010 (IPS) - The murder this week of Silvia Suppo, a victim of rape during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina, has fuelled fears for the safety of key witnesses in human rights trials.

Since trials for human rights abuses committed during the de facto regime got underway again five years ago, plaintiffs, judicial employees and especially witnesses have faced threats and intimidation.

One witness, Jorge Julio López, went missing in 2006 shortly after he testified against a former police chief who ended up sentenced to life in prison on charges of genocide.

The Justice Ministry has created a programme to provide protection to 4,500 witnesses in the cases, which were reopened after two amnesty laws that had protected human rights violators were struck down.

But many of the witnesses are torture survivors, and are reluctant to accept police custody or other drastic protective measures like moving away from their homes.

Graciela Rosenblum, head of the Argentine League for the Rights of Man (LADH), told IPS that human rights groups like her own are calling for “a comprehensive strategy involving all three branches of the state” to fight impunity.

“It’s not just a problem of protecting witnesses,” she stressed. “The trials should move along faster, cases should be combined, new courtrooms should be opened, and measures should be taken to block legal maneuvers aimed at bogging down the trials.”

Suppo was initially thought to have been killed during a robbery. But human rights groups and authorities speculate that she may have been killed in order to silence her, as she planned to testify in court again.

The 51-year-old woman was brutally stabbed a number of times Monday in her shop in Rafaela, a city in the eastern province of Santa Fe, and money and merchandise were taken.

In 1977, Suppo was kidnapped at the age of 18 and taken to a provincial police station where she was tortured and raped by her captors. When she became pregnant as a result, she was made to abort.

Her testimony played a key role in the December conviction of six human rights violators in Santa Fe, who were found guilty of torture and kidnapping. One of the six was former federal judge Víctor Brusa, the first judicial employee in Argentina convicted of crimes against humanity, for which he was sentenced to 21 years in prison.

Two former provincial police officers were also sentenced to 23 years in prison, two former civilian officials to 22 years, and the former prison guard who took Suppo to have an abortion was given a sentence of 19 years, becoming the first woman to be convicted for her participation in the “dirty war” against political dissent.

Suppo was also a witness in other cases of kidnappings committed in 1977, including that of Reinaldo Hammeter, one of the dictatorship’s 10,000 to 30,000 victims of forced disappearance (depending on the source of the statistic – the government truth commission or human rights groups). She was scheduled to testify against four people charged in the Hammeter case.

The government’s National Human Rights Secretary Eduardo Duhalde and Santa Fe Deputy Governor Gabriela Tessio said that no possible leads should be ruled out.

“The level of brutality was odd, for supposed thieves. It might have been a hired killing made to look like a robbery,” Tessio speculated.

Horacio Coutaz, lawyer for one of the victims in the trial against Brusa, told IPS that “it is not prudent” to question the witness protection programme, which might not be responsible in this case. Furthermore, he said, such criticism could generate even greater fear among witnesses.

“In Santa Fe there is a provincial protection programme, and some witnesses accept it partially – not the bodyguards, but other measures,” he said.

In his view, “a cautious approach” is needed in the investigation of Suppo’s death. But he added that he was surprised by the brutality involved in the killing, of a kind never before seen in the town.

According to the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a local human rights group, 1,464 people are accused in court of crimes against humanity, and only 68 have been convicted so far, in the trials that got underway since the 1980s amnesty laws were declared unconstitutional in 2005.

CELS called the slow pace of justice “exasperating,” and said it contributes to the lack of safety for witnesses and the weak supervision and control of detainees.

With respect to inadequate controls, CELS mentioned the case of former coast guard officer Héctor Febres, who was slipped a lethal dose of cyanide in his cell at a military detention centre in 2007 while awaiting a verdict on charges of torture.

The group also pointed to former army lieutenant colonel Julián Corres, who escaped from a jail in 2008 (although he was later recaptured).

In the view of CELS, the justice system has shown “an incapacity to investigate and clarify threats and intimidations suffered by witnesses and plaintiffs.”

It also underlined that Jorge Julio López’s disappearance “is the most serious case of harassment and persecution of witnesses.”

López, a construction worker who was active in the Justicialista (Peronist) Party, had been abducted, held and tortured in several clandestine detention centres between 1976 and 1979. But unlike so many other political prisoners, he survived and was released.

In 2006, he went missing the day before a life sentence was handed down to former police chief Miguel Etchecolatz. López’s testimony had helped demonstrate that victims of forced disappearance had been murdered by Etchecolatz and other former police officers.

The 77-year-old witness was never heard from again, and the police have no clues as to what happened to him.

Other witnesses have been briefly kidnapped. Three months after López went missing in 2006, Luis Gerez, a key witness in the trial against former assistant police chief and former mayor Luis Patti, vanished.

Gerez, who had testified that Patti took part in torturing him during the dictatorship, was found alive two days after he went missing, badly shaken and covered with bruises and cigarette burns.

In 2008, Juan Puthod, a torture survivor, human rights activist and trial witness, was kidnapped, beaten and threatened, before he was released 28 hours later.

And in May 2009, torture survivor Orlando González, another key witness in a human rights case in which former police officials were convicted, went missing for 30 hours in the province of Tucumán. When he turned up alive, he only said that he was “very confused.” But his family said he had been threatened for testifying.

None of the cases of missing witnesses has been solved.

Only one person has been arrested for intimidation: Luis Gil, a former police officer from the province of Santa Fe, was arrested in 2009 for sending email death threats to witnesses, plaintiffs and judicial employees, warning them not to continue with the trials.

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