Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-URUGUAY: The Last Dictator, Behind Bars

Darío Montero

MONTEVIDEO, Dec 18 2007 (IPS) - Thanks to a 2006 law on forced disappearance, retired General Gregorio Álvarez, who played a key role in Uruguay’s June 1973 coup d’etat and ruled the country during the last stretch of the dictatorship, which ended in 1985, is now under arrest.

Slightly over a year after the first dictator of that period, Juan María Bordaberry, was imprisoned for crimes against humanity, Álvarez was arrested Monday in connection with the disappearance of 39 Uruguayans.

The case involves the forced disappearance of Uruguayan political prisoners seized in Argentina and secretly taken to neighbouring Uruguay on different occasions in 1978 by plane or boat, prosecutor Mirtha Guianze told IPS.

The investigation has not yet confirmed that all of the 39 leftists, who were held in different torture centres operated by Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, like the notorious Automotores Orletti, actually reached Uruguay, with the exception of Carlos Cabezudo and Célica Gómez Rosano, who were seen by survivors in the clandestine prison in La Tablada, on the outskirts of Montevideo, Guianze added.

The rest may have been transferred to Uruguay in smaller groups and killed, or thrown alive from military planes into the Río de la Plata estuary that separates the two countries – a technique used by the Argentine Navy to "disappear" thousands of political prisoners.

The transfers of political prisoners occurred in the context of Operation Condor, a secret plan by the military regimes ruling South America in the 1970s to cooperate in the elimination of dissidents.

Also arrested in this case is retired Navy officer Juan Larcebeau, and an international arrest warrant has been issued for retired Navy Captain Jorge Tróccoli, who admitted in a book he wrote a few years ago that he had tortured political prisoners. The retired officer is reportedly embarked somewhere on a ship.

Álvarez was taken Monday to a special prison where he is being held with around 10 other former officers also facing prosecution for human rights crimes.

His lawyer Juan Curbelo attempted to block his arrest by resigning under the argument that due process of law was absent. A public defender will now have to be named.

The 82-year-old Álvarez has five working days to appeal. The charges he is facing carry a sentence of 25 years in prison.

Guianze said it is likely that the retired general will spend the holidays behind bars, and that there will be no new developments until February, because of the (southern hemisphere) summer legal recess.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Álvarez played a leading role in the fight against the Tupamaro urban guerrillas and in planning the 1973 coup.

When democratically elected president Bordaberry dissolved parliament and banned the country’s political parties and social organisations, Álvarez became the most influential of the generals from his post as permanent secretary of the recently established National Security Council.

Wielding power over the lives and assets of hundreds of thousands of Uruguayans, Álvarez signed "memorandum 7777" in July 1978 in which he assumed responsibility for eventual human rights violations committed in the "fight against subversion."

That document is one of the key pieces of evidence in the cases involving the disappearance of some 200 Uruguayans, most of whom were "disappeared" in Argentina.

Álvarez was army chief in 1978 and 1979, the period in which the crimes in question were committed. He also led the regime from September 1981 to February 1985, when democratically elected president Julio María Sanguinetti took office.

Under Álvarez’s rule, tens of thousands of political prisoners were tortured, and thousands of people fled into exile.

His arrest completes the prosecution and imprisonment of the top commanders of the dictatorship who are still alive and of the leading torturers who acted under their orders.

Bordaberry, who headed the regime until 1976, is under house arrest due to health reasons while awaiting sentencing in connection with 14 "especially aggravated" homicides. The man who served as his foreign minister, Juan Carlos Blanco, is in prison facing charges for four murders and the disappearance of schoolteacher Elena Quinteros.

A novel aspect of the prosecution of Álvarez is the application of a new law on forced disappearance, which last year brought Uruguayan legislation in line with international human rights conventions ratified by this South American country.

Lawyer Óscar López Goldaracena, who sponsored the law at the request of the leftist Broad Front government when it became the governing party in 2005, told IPS that its application is a sign that "the culture of impunity will no longer be accepted by Uruguayan society."

"This is a historic day for the country," he said, although he added that Álvarez’s arrest and the new law must spur continued investigations into the fate of the victims of forced disappearance, and that the armed forces must be required to hand over all of the information in their power with regard to the crimes of the dictatorship.

"The families of the victims cannot complete their mourning process until they know what happened" to their loved ones, he said.

The concept of crimes against humanity was not frozen in the Nuremberg Statute, but has continued to evolve, to be perfected, and has taken on autonomy, while its essential characteristics have been defined (that no statute of limitations applies, that these crimes cannot be subject to an amnesty or pardon, and that their perpetrators cannot claim political asylum), said Judge Luis Charles in his ruling.

He added that under international law, there is a "universal imperative" to punish those guilty of crimes against humanity.

Even though an amnesty law approved by Uruguayan voters in a 1989 referendum is still standing, the arrival of the Broad Front – which was brutally repressed by the dictatorship – to the government and the legal changes introduced to bring national legislation into line with international treaties have led to a more active approach by the justice system towards pending human rights cases.

Although the amnesty law kept military human rights violators out of the courts for years, it also contains a clause that allows the executive branch to launch investigations into the fate of the disappeared, and does not block prosecution of the dictatorship’s top commanders, nor of those accused of economic crimes or of stealing the babies of political prisoners.

When he took office in 2005, socialist President Tabaré Vázquez promised to comply with the law.

The amnesty law left it up to the executive branch to determine which cases could go to court, and the rightist and centre-right governments that ruled the country from 1985 to 2005 slammed the door shut on all judicial action.

Vázquez, on the other hand, referred all of the cases presented to him to the courts, and for that reason and others basically all of the dictatorship’s leaders are now in prison or under house arrest.

Because the president swore to respect the amnesty law, he is not throwing his political weight behind a proposal to revoke it, although the Broad Front party congress held on Sunday applauded a popular initiative to collect signatures to hold a referendum, in which voters could overturn the law.

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