Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Shedding Light on Dictatorship’s Sex Crimes

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 28 2011 (IPS) - It’s been nearly three decades since Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship came to an end, but the sex crimes committed against political prisoners are just now starting to draw more attention, after being pushed into the background in human rights trials.

ESMA, from torture centre to human rights museum. Credit: UNESCO

ESMA, from torture centre to human rights museum. Credit: UNESCO

“It’s not that it wasn’t talked about before; it’s that people weren’t listening,” sociologist Lorena Balardini, a researcher at the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a prominent human rights group involved in a number of the cases, told IPS.

Balardini, a co-author of the study “Gender violence and sexual abuse in clandestine detention centres”, is working with lawyer Ana Oberlin and psychiatrist Laura Sobredo to finally bring these crimes to light – and the perpetrators to justice.

The three CELS experts who produced the study organise seminars to sensitise judicial system workers on the issue. Speakers in the seminars include well-known figures like former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón – famous for getting former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) arrested in London – and members of international criminal tribunals.

So far, there have been scant results with respect to prosecuting sex crimes committed during the dictatorship. Only one sentence has been handed down so far, against non-commissioned officer and torturer Gregorio Molina, in June 2010. Although the grounds for charges in such cases “are excellent,” this was the only conviction, Balardini said.

“There is great reluctance on the part of judicial system operators,” said the expert. The majority see sex crimes as falling in the broader category of torture, but classifying them as such is just another way of concealing them, she said.

“If a crime is differentiated and specified in our penal code, to merely lump it in a wider category reduces its significance and importance,” Balardini said. “We want it to be understood that the systematic repression included the practice of sexual violence.”

The justice system must specifically investigate these crimes, she said. But few prosecutors and judges have done so, although some have begun to study the issue.

“We are making progress. But we have had more failures than achievements,” she admitted.

A layperson might suppose that after all these years, sex crimes would be difficult to prove. But Balardini explained that when it comes to crimes against humanity, in which victims suffered a wide range of abuses and torture in clandestine detention centres run by de facto governments, the main evidence comes from testimony.

It is impossible to prove each case of torture in which a victim was naked and tied to a metal bed spring in a room where the only other people were torturers. Other witnesses, if any are still alive, can only testify that they heard her screams or saw her coming out of the torture chamber or back to the cell injured, she said.

Balardini noted that women are reporting sex crimes now more than ever before. And some cases have begun to prosper. In the 1980s, “neither the justice system nor society heard or paid attention to them,” she said.

In seven years, the dictatorship forcibly disappeared between 11,000 and 30,000 people, depending on the source of the estimate.

The regime hunted down left-wing activists, guerrillas, trade unionists, members of social movements and people who were picked up and “disappeared” merely to rob them. These people filled up numerous concentration camps, where they were tortured and usually ended up being “transferred” – a euphemism that meant they were being taken away to be killed, either shot or thrown, drugged but alive, from airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean or the River Plate estuary.

Among the abuses, sexual attacks on women as well as men were a systematic practice.

The former junta members were tried in 1985 and sentenced, several of them to life in prison, during the government of Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989).

Later, the legal action brought against thousands of lower-ranking members of the security forces sparked army revolts and heavy military pressure against the still-fragile democracy, which prompted the adoption of two amnesty laws, in 1986 and 1987, that shielded human rights abusers from prosecution.

The former military commanders were pardoned and released in 1989 and 1990 by then president Carlos Menem (1989-1999).

The impunity only began to be tackled when the late Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) became president. Congress repealed the amnesty laws and presidential pardons, and the Supreme Court found them unconstitutional. As a result, the human rights cases were resumed in the courts. Today there are more than 360 trials underway nationwide.

In this new context, the sexual torture of women political prisoners has begun to receive specific attention, unlike during the trials in the 1980s.

A few judges have called for specific investigations into what are classified as “crimes against honour,” although most other judges still include sex crimes in the broader category of torture.

“In the first case involving the First Army Corps (one of the clandestine prisons), the number of victims who reported sex crimes was appalling, but these crimes become invisible in sentences that broadly refer to cases of torture,” Balardini said.

The study on gender violence and sexual abuse collected the accounts of women political prisoners. In some cases, their husbands, who were seized along with them, are still missing, and in other cases, the women’s children were taken from them – circumstances that tended to overshadow the other crimes of which they were victims.

“I am only now able to talk about it,” said one. “Within the context of the horror you experienced in the concentration camps, a rape seemed like something secondary,” said another of the women who spoke anonymously.

In some cases, women were forced to fix themselves up and were taken from the illegal detention centres to apartments to have sex with military officers or others. If they refused, they could be “transferred”. The victims finally feel they can talk about these situations in which they were degraded and forced to have sex.

The authors of the study say that in the 1980s, the trials had “limited aspirations,” and the testimony was focused on proving the existence of a systematic plan of repression. For that reason, sex crimes did not figure in the sentences against the former junta members.

In the face of the magnitude of the plan to exterminate dissidents, the objective of demonstrating the extent of the repression overshadowed the details of the individual experiences of political prisoners.

But now there has been a “qualitative leap” in the testimony of victims, the authors say.

The survivors of the dirty war, both men and women, had largely refrained from talking about sex crimes for different reasons.

One was that at the time, when the dictatorship had just come to an end, they believed the priority was to find out what had happened to the victims of forced disappearance. Many also felt the need to conceal from their families the most shocking and private details of the horror they had experienced.

But today, the survivors are apparently more ready to reveal their experiences. There is also a large body of academic work by the women’s movement that has helped bring visibility to the question of sex crimes, the study’s authors explain.

Balardini said the sentences issued by the U.N. international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s set a fundamental precedent by recognising various forms of sexual violence as crimes against humanity.

She also said recent reports that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi purportedly ordered that rape be used as a weapon of war against the opposition were made possible by the new visibility of sexual violence within the context of armed conflicts around the world.

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