Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Life Sentence for Videla Culminates “Year of Trials”

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Dec 22 2010 (IPS) - The life sentence handed down to former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla Wednesday was the culmination of a year marked by faster progress in trials of members of the armed forces accused of human rights violations committed during the country’s 1976-1983 military regime.

The number went from “two convictions in 2006 to an unprecedented 150 or so this year, making this the year of trials,” Lorena Balardini, with the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), told IPS.

CELS, a local human rights group that provides legal assistance, has represented survivors and the families of victims in a number of human rights trials, while closely following all of the legal proceedings.

Videla was found guilty of the torture and murders of 31 political prisoners in 1976 in the San Martín prison in the central province of Córdoba. The prisoners were pulled from their cells and tortured, and were officially shot “while trying to escape.”

Former general Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, who was commander of the third army corps, based in Córdoba, was also sentenced to life in prison on the same charges Wednesday.

In their unanimous verdict, the panel of federal judges that tried them ruled that the crimes of torture and homicide were aggravated because the victims were political prisoners. They also ordered that the 85-year-old Videla serve his sentence in a civilian prison.

Videla had already been tried and sentenced 25 years ago. But he served just five years of a life sentence before he and other junta leaders were pardoned in 1990 by president Carlos Menem (1989-1999).

In 1998 he was taken into custody again and put under house arrest in connection with the theft of the babies of political prisoners. And in 2008, the courts ordered his transfer to the Campo de Mayo military prison in Buenos Aries.

The former strongman, who led the coup d’état that overthrew the government of Isabel Perón (1973-1976), the widow of former president Juan Domingo Perón (1973-76), said in the trial that “It was not a dirty war, but a just war, in which we saved the country from the ‘young idealists’ who wanted to impose a culture that clashed with our traditional western, Christian style of life.”

Menéndez, who was also pardoned and released from prison in 1990, was not tried again until the amnesty laws and pardons were revoked. He has been handed five life sentences since 2008.

Before hearing his sentence Wednesday, Menéndez also justified his activities during the de facto regime. “Argentine society suffered an assault by Marxist subversives, who on the orders of the Soviet Union and Cuba were trying to take over our country,” he said.

According to his arguments, the victims of the dictatorship wanted Argentineans “to no longer be free to think, express ourselves or own property…and all of that was to be controlled by a totalitarian state.”

As Videla, who was sitting nearby, nodded, the 83-year-old Menéndez boasted that the regime managed to do in a short time what Colombia, in decades of armed conflict against left-wing guerrillas, has failed to do. He also said Argentina “is the first country in the history of the world to try its victorious soldiers.”

Another 15 members of the military and police were also sentenced to life in prison in the trial Wednesady, and seven others — including a police woman — were given terms of six to 14 years. Seven defendants were acquitted on grounds of insufficient evidence.

The sentences were greeting by cheering and celebration from large crowds outside and inside the courthouse.

Speeding up the human rights trials

In its annual report, CELS reported on progress and setback in the trials, which got underway again in 2006 after amnesty laws and pardons that protected human rights violators from legal action and prison were declared unconstitutional and repealed, under the government of centre-left president Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007).

“In our next report, we’re going to say that 2010 was the year of the trials,” said Balardini, a lawyer. “In 2009 11 trials were completed, and this year 15 came to an end and sentences will be handed down in 10 more over the next few months.”

If the legal proceedings had been speedier, she said, the number of people found guilty would be twice the current total.

She explained that of a total of 1,600 people who were facing prosecution in human rights trials, 1,200 are under investigation.

Balardini said that of the 350 legal proceedings around the country, which involve thousands of victims of forced disappearance, 30 trials have ended and 10 are almost complete, which means that more than 300 have not yet reached the oral phase of trial.

An estimated 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared during the dictatorship.

“Cases should be grouped together by detention centre or by other criteria determined by the judges, because otherwise it will be hard to resolve so many cases in the short term, and there is a biological limit here: the age of the defendants,” she said.

This year alone, 30 of those facing charges died, including former admiral Emilio Massera, a former junta member who headed the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA) in Buenos Aires, the regime’s biggest clandestine torture centre, where a total of more than 2,000 political prisoners were held and tortured. Most of them were thrown, alive but drugged, into the Río de la Plata (River Plate) from airplanes.

But the number of alleged human rights violators who have died without being sentenced since the crimes were committed totals 256. In addition, 16 were declared unfit to stand trial and 40 are fugitives from justice.

In addition, many of the key witnesses and family members are elderly, and are calling for faster progress in the trials. Adriana Calvo, the first survivor who dared to testify in the 1985 trial against Videla and other members of the junta — who were later pardoned — died this month.

In the provinces of Tucumán in the northwest and Mendoza in the west, “several cases were combined into one to expedite things, but another province, La Rioja (in the northwest), held a trial with one single defendant and one victim,” Balardini said.

With respect to Wednesday’s ruling, she also stressed that it set a precedent: for the first time, sexual assault of a female political prisoner was considered a crime against humanity.

Jorge Auat, a member of the office of the public prosecutor’s unit for the coordination and monitoring of cases of human rights violations, told IPS that the judges have the authority to combine cases if they deem it appropriate.

The prosecutor also said the legal proceedings made faster progress this year, and that the number of defendants has grown significantly since the trials got underway. But he complained that most of the defendants have been released on bail during the trial.

The life sentence handed down to Videla, one of the most prominent symbols of the dictatorship, was celebrated by survivors and family members of victims, as well as human rights groups that have ceaselessly fought for justice.

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