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HUMAN RIGHTS: Amnesty Law Still Blocking Justice in Uruguay

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Nov 17 2010 (IPS) - “It is essential for the amnesty law to be repealed” in Uruguay, Argentine poet Juan Gelman told IPS after hearings at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ended in Quito, in the cases of the murder of his daughter-in-law and the kidnapping of his granddaughter.

The law “has prevented investigation of these and other atrocious human rights violations, and has stood in the way of bringing to account those who were responsible for the abuses,” said the writer, who jointly with his granddaughter Macarena Gelman brought a lawsuit against Uruguay for the forced disappearance of her mother.

Unless the law is overturned, “the impunity that has reigned for 25 years in Uruguay (since the end of the 1973-1985 dictatorship) will continue. No one has been issued with a final sentence, no one at all. And the state knows who the guilty parties are,” Gelman stressed.

“In 1999 I sent then president (Julio María) Sanguinetti a letter with the names of 24 suspects, but he did nothing. No one has done anything, and that’s how things have remained,” he added. Sanguinetti served two terms as Uruguayan president, in 1985-1990 and 1995-2000.

Gelman’s tone of indignation contrasted with his weary equanimity at the two-day hearing of the case, which was part of the 42nd extraordinary session of the Inter-American Court, held in Quito by invitation of the government of Ecuador until this Wednesday.

The case involves the forced disappearance of his daughter-in-law María Claudia García, the kidnapping of his granddaughter and theft of her identity, and denial of justice. Reparations are being claimed by Macarena Gelman, who was raised by a police inspector and his wife in Uruguay as their own child, and was ultimately found by her biological family in 2000.

Macarena told IPS that “for the first time the issue has been examined from every viewpoint. We still have to wait for final written statements and the court sentence, but we have taken a key step forward, and I am pleased about that.”

In court she testified that 10 years ago, the person she thought was her biological mother told her the truth, and said her grandfather was looking for her and wanted to contact her. The man Macarena had thought was her “real” father had died a few months earlier.

Macarena and Juan Gelman met, and the story went public in February 2002. Although his granddaughter’s whereabouts were then unknown, the case had already come to light because of Gelman’s letters to Sanguinetti in 1999, which sparked a wave of international solidarity, expressed in tens of thousands of letters from intellectuals, artists and ordinary people around the world.

The clue to finding Macarena was provided by a neighbour, who told how the couple received a baby girl in a basket in 1977. “A DNA test showed a 99.999997 percent probability that she was my granddaughter,” Gelman said.

“I celebrate the fact that the Uruguayan state has recognised its responsibility at this hearing, and has declared that it will abide by the court’s verdict. But the state’s position has been confusing and biased, and not at all in line with what we are demanding in this case,” Macarena Gelman told IPS.

In final verbal arguments Tuesday, Carlos Mata, representing Uruguay, accepted the Uruguayan state’s responsibility for violating the human rights of García, who is registered as a victim of forced disappearance, and her daughter “during the de facto government that ruled Uruguay from Jun. 27, 1973 to Feb. 28, 1985.”

He said Uruguay had already recognised this in a law passed in 2009. Article 1 recognises the breakdown of the rule of law, article 2 recognises responsibility for murders, disappearances, systematic torture, kidnappings and stolen identities, and article 3 provides for comprehensive reparations for the actions or omissions of the state.

“It is gratifying that Uruguay has enacted this law, but it is not enough,” Ariela Peralta, head of the Gelmans’ legal team in the case, told IPS. “The main impediment is the amnesty law, which subjects the judiciary to decisions by the executive branch, and hinders effective recourse to truth and justice.”

The amnesty law, approved by a public referendum in 1989, put an end to prosecution of members of the military and police forces accused of committing crimes against humanity during the 12-year military dictatorship.

Although it says cases of detained-disappeared persons and kidnapped children must be investigated, if members of the security forces were responsible, they cannot be prosecuted.

The testimony of the Gelmans — grandfather and granddaughter — and of another witness, Sara Méndez, who was held and tortured in the infamous Automotores Orletti clandestine detention centre in Buenos Aires and later in Montevideo, and who testified this week about what she knew about the pregnant prisoner (García) and her baby, born in the Military Hospital, moved the more than 1,500 people attending the hearings in three different rooms.

Gelman told the court he was in exile in Rome in 1976, working for the international news agency Inter Press Service (IPS), when he received word that his 20-year-old son Marcelo and his daughter-in-law María Claudia had been kidnapped in Argentina by agents of that country’s 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Later he found out that Marcelo had been murdered, shot in the back of the head, in October 1976. His body was found years later in a cement-filled oil drum.

His 19-year-old daughter-in-law, seven months pregnant, was first taken to Automotores Orletti in Buenos Aires, where dozens of Uruguayan and Chilean prisoners were held temporarily. In October 1976 she was taken to Uruguay by Uruguayan military personnel and held in a clandestine prison in Montevideo.

After she had her baby, García was murdered in early 1977 by a police officer, according to investigations conducted in Argentina.

Gelman described his attempts to get the second Sanguinetti administration to take up the investigation he had started with the network of victims of the Argentine and Uruguayan dictatorships and their relatives, and the constant hurdles he faced, which led him to take the matter to the courts.

In 2008, after two previous lawsuits were unexpectedly thrown out, a criminal case was opened in a Uruguayan court, but no progress has been made so far, the writer said. “I am convinced there is a civil-military-judicial network that is blocking the course of investigations and the identification of the guilty parties,” he said.

“In 11 years of trying to make headway with Uruguayan governments and the justice system, I have not been able to find out what really happened to my daughter-in-law,” he said at the conclusion of his testimony.

“That is why I hope this court, acting within its powers, may find a way of getting the Uruguayan government to eliminate its amnesty law. I ask this court to help my granddaughter and me to find some kind of closure, because at this point I find the uncertainty and the systematic denial of justice to be unbearable.”

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