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Crime & Justice

Prison Study Programme Shuns Argentine “Dirty War” Criminals

Renovation of the Devoto University Centre, in the prison of the same name, built by inmates in 1985. Credit: Public domain

BUENOS AIRES, Jul 19 2012 (IPS) - A group of prisoners convicted of crimes against humanity committed during Argentina’s last dictatorship (1976-1983) have put university and prison authorities in a difficult position by asking to enrol in an academic study programme for inmates financed by the state.

So far, four jailed human rights abusers – three convicted and one still awaiting final judgment – have applied for enrolment in UBA XXII , a university outreach programme created in 1985 by the state University of Buenos Aires (UBA), which enables inmates to pursue higher education while serving their sentences.

Their request sparked controversy as university authorities and faculty members are adamantly refusing to teach these inmates. While the arguments they give are valid, their refusal could, nonetheless, be considered a violation of the prisoners’ right to receive an education, experts say.

One of the prisoners applying for the programme, the physician Carlos Jurio, sentenced to 13 years for crimes against humanity, has gone before the National Institute to Combat Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI), filing a complaint against one of the university teachers who refused to admit him in his course.

The INADI acknowledged that the situation posed a conflict of rights between the prisoner’s right to study and the teacher’s right to conscientious objection, but was unable to reach a decision and referred the case to the UBA.

The other former military officers demanding that their right to study be respected are Juan Carlos Rolón, who is awaiting sentence on multiple charges of human rights violations during Argentina’s brutal “Dirty War”, and Adolfo Donda and Carlos Guillermo Suárez Mason, who are both serving life sentences for the same crimes.

Rolón and Donda want to study law. Rolón obtained a court order that enabled him to enrol and he is currently studying to sit for examinations without attending class. The examination board has postponed his exams until a court decision is reached on the substantive issue.

Suárez Mason – the son of former commander of the First Army Corps Guillermo Suárez Mason, who died in prison in 2005 when he was serving a sentence for crimes against humanity – has chosen sociology as his course of studies.

The deans of the UBA’s School of Social Sciences and the School of Philosophy and Literature have declared their firm refusal to admit these perpetrators of crimes against humanity into their prisoner education programme.

The heads of the sociology course of study recognise the prisoners’ right to study but demand that their right be guaranteed through courses outside the UBA. The dean of the School of Philosophy and Literature, Héctor Trinchero, argues that “there’s an abysmal difference between a common crime and genocide.”

Trinchero recalled that 423 people connected with his school, including faculty, students and administrative staff, were victims of forced disappearance during the dictatorship.

Interviewed by IPS, the founder of the UBA XXII programme, B.Ed. Marta Laferrière, said, “denying the right to education to a person who the justice system has sentenced to jail is a very hard decision.”

According to Laferrière, who was UBA XXII’s director for 25 years, stepping down in 2010, the programme provides educational services. “We’re not judges. I can be outraged by certain crimes, but it is not the place of the university to be pointing fingers,” she said.

She noted that when she was director she advised teachers not to ask what their students were in jail for. But in this case the prisoners are notorious criminals and there is a real chance that they could end up in a class taught by a survivor of state terrorism.

The UBA XXII programme was created in the mid-1980s. Laferrière had just returned to Argentina from Venezuela, where she was exiled during the dictatorship, when she met a woman who was trying to find a way for her imprisoned son to continue with his university studies.

That gave her the idea to create an education programme for convicts. The programme now has over 500 students who attend classes in three prison schools, studying a range of courses of studies, including, law, sociology, psychology, economics, and computer science.

“Denying people deprived of their freedom of movement the right to receive an education because of the heinous nature of the crime they are accused or have been convicted of is like denying them an antibiotic or medical treatment if they’re sick,” she said by way of example.

She agreed, however, that teachers must be allowed to exercise their right to “conscientious objection” and refuse to teach them. But the university cannot deny them the service, she said.

The matter is now before the UBA’s governing board, formed by the deans of all its schools, and to reach a decision the board has requested the advice of a committee of notables.

The current director of UBA XXII, attorney Ariel Cejas, told IPS that the committee has already issued a recommendation against the prisoners’ enrolment.

“We informed the board that these enrolment requests had caused great unease among faculty and coordinators, and it’s up to the board to decide what to do,” Cejas said when IPS asked him for his opinion on the controversy.

Among the advisors consulted by the university board are Eugenio Zaffaroni, a criminal law expert and Supreme Court justice, and legislator Adriana Puiggrós, former dean of the School of Philosophy and Literature and one of the authors of the law that guarantees the right to public education for inmates.

This law covers every level of education and every penitentiary establishment, and makes no distinction based on the crimes committed by prisoners.

Despite the law, the UBA could, nonetheless, refuse to provide this service to these perpetrators of human rights abuses.

Cejas told IPS that the UBA’s governing council could issue its final decision in the first week of August.

“It’s not a pleasant situation. These are individuals who committed the most atrocious crimes when they were in power. And there is also a security issue we must take into consideration,” he stressed.

By this Cejas means that as these prisoners are in jail for crimes against humanity they are held in special cell blocks and would have to be transferred to one of the facilities assigned to the programme.

“I don’t think accepting them would be a solution. It would be best if they could sit for examinations without attending class,” he said.

In his opinion, considering how the debate has unfolded, “it doesn’t seem likely that the UBA will open its doors to them.” But he admitted that the prisoners could file a lawsuit, and if the courts rule in their favour, “the programme will have no choice but to accept them.”

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