Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Survivors, Activists Disappointed Over Human Rights Trial

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 18 2007 (IPS) - The first trial for the crimes against humanity committed in Argentina’s Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA) opened Thursday in the Argentine capital. But survivors of the notorious torture centre, where at least 5,000 political prisoners were held at some point during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, are not celebrating.

“Thirty years after the extremely serious crimes committed by the Navy, one single person is brought to trial, who wasn’t even a member of the Navy, and who, furthermore, is only being tried for four cases of kidnapping and torture. It’s a disgrace,” Carlos Lordkipanidse, an ESMA survivor and one of the plaintiffs in the trial, told IPS with indignation.

The rest of the cases against naval personnel and others who took part in torture in ESMA, the dictatorship’s biggest clandestine detention centre, are bogged down in the Cámara Nacional de Casación Penal (Criminal Annulment Chamber).

That high-level appeals court has been questioned by the centre-left government of Néstor Kirchner, which has accused some of its members of blocking human rights cases.

In the trial that opened Thursday in Buenos Aires, Héctor Febres, a member of the Naval Prefecture (Argentina’s coast guard), is accused of kidnapping and torturing Lordkipanidse, Carlos García, Alfredo Margari and Josefa Prada, all four of whom survived their ordeal.

Many of the political prisoners who made it through their torture sessions and ”interrogations” ended up being drugged and thrown alive into the sea from airplanes. According to human rights groups, some 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared by the regime.

Febres, who is already in prison in relation to the theft of babies of political prisoners who gave birth in captivity, will face charges in separate trials for the forced disappearance of investigative journalist Rodolfo Walsh, his alleged participation in the kidnapping and murders of the French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, and other cases.

Only three human rights cases have come to trial in Argentina since the Supreme Court struck down two amnesty laws protecting human rights abusers in 2005, and they involved two police chiefs, Julio Simón and Miguel Etchecolatz, and Roman Catholic priest Christian von Wernich, a former police chaplain.

Febres is the only former ESMA torturer whose case has made it to trial, while around 300 people, mainly members of the Navy, who were active in that torture centre during the military dictatorship are wanted for questioning by prosecutors.

In 2004, the Kirchner administration handed over the 19-hectare naval complex to local human rights organisations, which will convert it into a memorial museum.

Febres “was in charge of the basement where the ‘interrogation’ rooms and the ‘incubation’ room, where the pregnant women were taken, were located,” recalled Lordkipanidse, who was kidnapped on Nov. 18, 1978 and was held in ESMA for two and a half years before he was released on parole. In 1983 he fled into exile to Sweden.

An hour before he was seized and taken to ESMA, his wife and their 20-day-old son were taken away. (They also survived, and went with him into exile).

Lordkipanidse remembers that Febres’ alias was “Gordo Selva” (Fat Jungle). The personnel operating in ESMA referred to each other by nicknames, often the names of animals, like Puma, Crow or Piranha, and “Febres was called ‘jungle’ because he was as bad as all of the animals put together,” said the torture survivor.

Liliana Mazea, Lordkipanidse’s lawyer, told IPS that the plaintiffs’ attorneys had asked the Supreme Court to suspend the trial and merge it with others that will be held in coming months for higher-ranking naval personnel like Captains Alfredo Astiz or Jorge Acosta, alias “The Tiger”.

The office of the public prosecutor also opposed the trial, on the argument that it would lead to a parade of survivors and other witnesses to testify in court on cases that were relatively minor compared to the gravity and magnitude of the crimes against humanity that were committed in ESMA.

Febres’ lawyer, Victor Valle, also attempted to have his client tried alongside other members of ESMA in order to reduce the burden of responsibility facing his client, the first member of the military to be tried since the human rights cases were reopened.

But the Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday that the trial would proceed – a decision that frustrated witnesses, survivors, and lawyers with human rights groups like Justicia Ya (Justice Now), which has been pressing for a merging of the cases.

“They don’t want it to be demonstrated that there was an organised criminal plan for genocide in Argentina,” said Mazea, a member of Justicia Ya. “The government and the justice system should adopt measures to hold trials on the basis of entire detention centres…and not allow this atomisation that dilutes the magnitude of the crimes.”

She also said that having to testify against the same defendants in several different trials, and then against other torturers seen in the same detention centres, “revictimised” survivors and the families of the “disappeared”, making them relive their suffering over and over.

“It would seem that they are waiting for the witnesses and defendants to gradually die off,” said Mazea.

Enrique Fukman, another ESMA survivor who will testify in the current trial and in future prosecutions, has all too vivid memories of Febres’ brutality. “Since he didn’t belong to the Navy, he tried to impress them and gain their confidence, which is why he was so brutal,” he said.

The start of the ESMA case dates back to 1979, when the first survivors testified before the European Parliament. They later presented their testimony to the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, created by the Argentine government of Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989), and in trials of Argentine human rights abusers held in Italy and Spain, said Fukman.

Around 60 witnesses will testify in the current case against Febres alone.

“What really annoys me is that I’m going to have to go so many times to testify against this guy (Febres) and others from ESMA,” said Lordkipanidse. “I saw Astíz in ESMA, and Acosta and (then chief of the Navy Admiral Emilio) Massera; why aren’t they here today?”

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