Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Purging the Legal System of Dictatorship Accomplices

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 6 2011 (IPS) - As human rights cases from Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship move ahead in the courts, cases of judges and prosecutors who were accomplices in the crimes are coming to light.

Thanks to the memory of witnesses and survivors of the “dirty war”, as well as the tireless efforts of human rights organisations, judges and prosecutors implicated in dictatorship-era human rights crimes have generally been kept from taking part in the trials.

And information provided by the survivors and witnesses is now being used to gradually purge these judges and prosecutors from the legal system.

The most recent case is that of Otilio Romano, a federal court judge in the western province of Mendoza, who despite numerous accusations against him managed to stay in his post until late August.

There was evidence that Romano was involved in 76 cases of kidnapping, torture and forced disappearance between 1975 and 1983. Nevertheless, he evaded legal action for years.

But charges have now been brought against him for 17 crimes against humanity, and the Consejo de la Magistratura – a high council made up of judges, legislators and lawyers – decided to suspend and impeach him, on the grounds that he served the cause of state terrorism by failing to investigate crimes against humanity as a prosecutor during the regime.

Colleagues of his like Luis Miret, Rolando Carrizo and Guillermo Petra Recabarren, who had kept their posts until recently, were also suspended and are facing charges for denying justice to numerous victims of the dictatorship.

Carolina Varsky, a lawyer with the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), told IPS that her human rights group has long denounced the complicity of judges and prosecutors during the dictatorship, but that “only in the last decade has the issue begun to be discussed.

“Until well into the 1990s, denunciations (of the collusion) were disregarded by the judicial branch, which protected judges who were accomplices of the dictatorship,” she said.

Many of the judges in question were actually appointed during the de facto regime.

But “over the last decade, this issue began to be debated, and in the past few years it steadily gained momentum” as human rights cases came to trial, said Varsky, the head of CELS’ “Memory and the Struggle Against Impunity” programme.

Human rights trials were resumed after the amnesty laws for military personnel adopted in the mid-1980s were overturned in 2005 and the presidential pardons granted to imprisoned members of the former military junta in 1989 and 1990 were struck down in 2007.

However, human rights groups complain that accomplices of state terrorism still form part of the justice system, and could even be sitting as judges in courts that are trying crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship.

There have been, for example, several cases of judges and prosecutors implicated in the forced disappearance of children, which was proven to be a systematic practice during the regime.

A total of 11,000 cases of forced disappearance have been officially proven, but human rights groups put the number at 30,000. In addition, some 500 children were kidnapped as babies along with their parents or born into captivity to political prisoners, and raised in many cases by childless military or police couples.

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who are searching for their missing grandchildren, have managed to restore the true identity of 104 of the children – now adults – so far. Some of them were raised by the members of the military who stole them, while others were adopted by families in good faith.

Alan Iud, a lawyer for the Grandmothers association, explained to IPS that of the 104 grandchildren who have been located and identified, 30 percent were given in adoption through the courts, which is why the association is investigating adoption records from that time period.

The association has hopes of finding more cases of grandchildren whose real identities were hidden by means of corrupt judicial procedures. In the meantime, the Grandmothers have been on the alert, because some prosecutors and judges who were involved in those cases are still active.

In the past few years, several dictatorship-era cases have come to light in which judges who were aware of the children’s provenance awarded them in adoption to strangers in illegal arrangements that took only a few hours, without even looking for the children’s biological relatives, such as grandparents.

One of the judges was recused in a case of theft of a child, because he himself had been an official counsel of minors in cases in which the children of victims of forced disappearance were illegally given in adoption.

Despite its shortcomings during the dictatorship, Argentina’s adoption law even then required that every effort be made to locate a biological family member before children were given up in adoption, which was supposed to be a last resort.

Two of the judges who handled these irregular cases – and publicly admitted to having done so – have died: Delia Pons, who approved the adoption of three children of victims of forced disappearance, and Ofelia Hejt, who approved at least 15 illegal adoptions.

The Grandmothers said in the film “Botín de Guerra” (Spoils of War) that Pons once told them: “Ladies, I am sure that your children were terrorists, and for me, ‘terrorist’ is a synonym for ‘murderer’ – and I do not plan to return the children of murderers.

“It would not be fair to do so, because you wouldn’t know how to raise them properly, and because you have no right to do so,” Judge Pons added, according to the Grandmothers.

After Pons died, and after a number of failed attempts to gain access to the adoption records in her court, the Grandmothers managed to get the files analysed, in order to find new cases of stolen children whose identities were changed with the late judge’s complicity.

Another judge, Luis Vera Candiotti, was prosecuted this year for involvement in the theft of a child in 1977. Although he knew the little girl had been taken from her parents, who were victims of forced disappearance, he granted her in illegal adoption to the military officer who took her.

Also under investigation now for the theft of children are former judges Juan Carlos Marchetti and Delfin Castro, accomplices in cases in which the children’s background was concealed and they were given up in illegal adoptions.

There are other judicial officers whose names Iud preferred not to mention, because they are still active in the justice system. But they were complicit in crimes committed in children’s courts during the dictatorship, when they were judges or clerks.

One of them, who is currently a federal appeals court judge, is implicated in several cases of illegal adoptions, including the case of the son of former Uruguayan political prisoner Sara Méndez. He was given in adoption to a policeman in Argentina.

Méndez, a survivor of torture camps, spent 25 years searching for her son in Uruguay and Argentina until she finally found him in 2002.

Another case is that of prosecutor Juan Romero, who went to trial in July, accused of passing information to and helping a colonel accused of stealing the young daughter of victims of forced disappearance.

Romero had been questioned by Congress in the 1990s, thwarting his appointment as a judge, which was proposed by then president Carlos Menem (1989-1999). Instead, the president named him prosecutor in a criminal court. But he has now resigned as prosecutor.

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