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

CHALLENGES 2007-2008: Human Rights in Argentina – Progress and Pending Tasks

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Dec 21 2007 (IPS) - Identified with a generation hit hard by Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, former president Néstor Kirchner won the respect of human rights organisations through his support of trials of military human rights abusers. Now his successor, his wife Cristina Fernández, faces new challenges on that front.

Cases against members of the military accused of human rights crimes were reopened during the Kirchner administration (2003-2007), after the Supreme Court struck down two amnesty laws that had let them off the hook. However, progress in the courts has been slow.

Some 800 trials are pending against former military officers involving charges of kidnapping, torture, forced disappearance, the theft of babies of political prisoners and the persecution of leftists and other dissidents outside of Argentina’s borders.

The judicial and legislative branches are studying different formulas, to overcome the bottleneck, although no solutions have yet been found.

On Tuesday, a former member of the military junta, 82-year-old Cristino Nicolaides, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the forced disappearance of five members of the Montoneros guerrillas.

Five other high-ranking military officers, a police chief and a civilian intelligence agent also received sentences of between 20 and 25 years for the 1980 disappearance of six Montoneros guerrillas who had returned to Argentina from exile as part of an operation known as a "counteroffensive." Only one of them survived.

Nicolaides and his fellow officers were the first military officers to be convicted since the amnesty laws were overturned.

Four other trials have reached the sentencing stage, against two former police chiefs, a former police chaplain, and a former coast guard officer.

In those few trials, there have already been two victims: a key witness, torture survivor Jorge Julio López, has been missing since last year, and the former coast guard officer, Héctor Febres, was found dead in his cell four days before he was to receive the verdict. The autopsy revealed that he had ingested large amounts of cyanide.

The lack of safety guarantees in the trials is not good news for the 4,500 witnesses, mainly torture survivors, who could be summoned to testify in the human rights trials.

But in this country where human rights groups say 30,000 people were "disappeared" during the military regime, the pending human rights agenda also includes questions that Kirchner hardly addressed, such as the severe overcrowding of prisons, police brutality and corruption, and violations of the basic rights of indigenous peoples.

"Advances have been seen" in the fight against impunity, but there are other issues that have been swept under the rug, like torture in prisons, domestic violence, and the appalling state of neglect suffered by native communities, Rafael Barca, executive director for Amnesty International Argentina, told IPS.

Although the federal government has specific agencies to deal with these issues, they do not all work with the same diligence. And in her inaugural address on Dec. 10, Fernández did not even mention these problems.

According to the Commission Against Torture set up by the government of Buenos Aires province, there were 6,000 violent incidents in prisons in the province – the country’s largest and most populous – over the past year, which left eight inmates dead or seriously injured per month.

These figures are cited by the damning report "System of Cruelty III".

"In Argentina, people seem to accept as something normal the lack of respect for human rights in prisons," said Spanish activist Iñaki Ribera, head of the Barcelona-based Observatory on the Penal System and Human Rights, on a visit to Buenos Aires.

Earlier this year, in a prison in the northern province of Santiago del Estero, 37 inmates died in what was reported as a riot.

With respect to domestic violence, Amnesty International urged the Argentine government in November to declare war on the phenomenon.

"This is not a private issue; it entails recurrent violations of a woman’s right to physical integrity, and is a disgrace for human rights," said Barca, who is also from Spain.

The situation is similar in the case of trafficking in persons, whose main victims are women. Groups working against this growing phenomenon in Argentina estimate that around 400 young women have disappeared in the past few years.

Nevertheless, there is no effective legislation to crack down on the trafficking rings that prey on unsuspecting young women, many of whom are deceived by promises of a decent job.

Argentine Ombudsman Eduardo Mondino also warned this year of the "silent extermination" of native communities in the northern province of Chaco, where 22 Toba and Wichí Indians died of malnutrition and other problems related to poverty.

While praising the efforts to put an end to the impunity enjoyed by military human rights abusers, Barca noted that "there are many other human rights that are not respected, and we hope they do something about them as well."

These issues were basically ignored by the Kirchner administration, said the activists.

"I am part of a generation that was decimated and afflicted by painful absences," the former president said when he took office in 2003.

Four months later, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, he described himself as "a son of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo" – the human rights organisations made up of the relatives of victims of forced disappearance, who have spent decades seeking the truth about what happened to their loved ones and demanding justice.

His successor has also promised to make human rights a top priority of her administration. In her inaugural speech, Fernández said that during her husband’s four-year government, the three branches of the state "toppled the wall of impunity" by revoking the two amnesty laws in 2005 and overturning this year the presidential pardons that let the military commanders off the hook.

The new president said the cases that have been reopened have suffered decades of delay. "We have the obligation to design the instruments to ensure that everyone responsible for the worst genocide in our history is tried and punished, while respecting the rights and guarantees that other Argentines did not have," said Fernández.

According to human rights groups, these new mechanisms should concentrate, for example, all of the cases from specific clandestine prisons in collective legal actions, not only to speed up the trials and keep torture survivors from having to testify over and over again in different cases, but also to give a better idea of the magnitude of the atrocities that were committed.

The legislature is studying various initiatives, and the Procuración General de la Nación (General Prosecutor’s Office) asked the Supreme Court to design more humane procedures for witnesses to testify, but without compromising the rights of the accused.

Nora Cortiñas, the head of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo Línea Fundadora (Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Founding Line), told IPS that under the Kirchner administration, the human rights movement made strides that "we never would have dreamed of," like the reopening of a number of trials.

"But we still have a long way to go," the activist added.

Cortiñas takes a more critical stance than that of the president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) Estela Barnes de Carlotto, and of the head of the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Association), Hebe Pastor de Bonafini – a fierce critic of the presidents that governed since the return to democracy in 1983, but a staunch supporter of Kirchner.

The mother of a 24-year-old young man who was abducted in 1976 and never seen again, Cortiñas applauds the advances made, but stresses the need to open up the military archives on the fate of the victims of forced disappearance and of the babies of political prisoners who were stolen and raised by military families.

The prosecutions must be expedited in order to try those responsible for human rights crimes before they die, she said.

She also underlined that the defence of human rights does not only involve redressing past wrongs. "Indigenous people are dying of starvation or lack of access to clean water, prisoners are living in terribly overcrowded conditions, and thousands of people are arrested for taking part in social protests," said the activist.

Among Kirchner’s main gestures in defence of human rights were the decision to convert the notorious Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), the dictatorship’s biggest torture centre, into a "museum of memory", and his order to remove the portraits of former dictators Jorge Rafael Videla and Benito Bignone from the gallery of photos of former directors of the Military School.

In November, he and his wife inaugurated a monument to the victims of state terrorism in the Parque de la Memoria, a Buenos Aires park along the Río de la Plata estuary, where thousands of victims of the regime were dumped, many of them drugged but alive.

One of Kirchner’s last acts was to sign into law the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted by the United Nations in 2006. Argentina played a key role in the creation of the Convention.

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