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ARGENTINA
Repressors face prosecution
Pablo Waisberg
6/30/2005
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Repeal of impunity laws opens the door for prosecution of crimes against humanity.

The Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional the Final Point and Due Obedience laws, which allowed crimes against humanity committed during the last dictatorship (1976-83) to go unpunished, will force the Argentine government to investigate and penalize those responsible for the atrocities.

Human rights organizations, victims’ relatives, as well as the government itself welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling (7-1, with one abstention), which was made June 14. Shortly after the announcement, President Néstor Kirchner stated that the ruling "returns our faith in justice."

The Final Point and Due Obedience laws — passed in 1986 and 1987, respectively, by former President Raúl Alfonsín (1983-89) — impeded the prosecution of former repressors. The first closed all cases against military personnel for human rights violations while the second prohibited investigations into low-ranking military personnel, on the basis that they were following orders from superiors.

These laws, however, did not include the crimes of appropriation of minors and identity replacement that are being investigated. There have been 10 military officers arrested and prosecuted for this crime. They included neither the Operation Condor, a plan that the Southern Cone’s military dictatorships used to coordinate repression in the 1970s and 80s, nor the theft of political opponents’ assets.

Military supports ruling

Each branch of the armed forces expressed agreement with the ruling, including army chief Roberto Bendini, who said that the next step must be to annul the pardons that were signed in 1989 by then-President Carlos Menem (1989-99), pardoning 277 civilians and military personnel. "It would be unacceptable for the junior officers to be thrown into prison while the high-ranking officers, who held the greatest responsibility go free," he said.

The high court ruling — that gave priority to international treaties — took as a precedent the repeal of the impunity laws by the Argentine Congress in 2003. The issue was sent then to the Supreme Court, which had to rule on the laws’ constitutionality. In May, Attorney General Esteban Righi ruled that the crimes committed during the last dictatorship are "imprescriptible".

The Supreme Court ruling was issued in the case of the disappearance of José Poblete and his wife Gertrudis Hlaczik and the kidnapping of their infant daughter, Claudia Victoria. Five years ago she learned that she had been raised by the couple that kidnapped her, ending a 22-year search by her real family.

That process — in which federal Judge Gabriel Cavallo and the Federal Chamber ruled that the amnesty laws were unconstitutional — was impelled by the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. "Justice has knocked down the last obstacle that could impede the truth and prevent the punishment of those responsible for State terrorism," CELS said in a statement.

Cases reopened

The voiding of the amnesty laws can pave the way for prosecution of roughly 400 military officers, according to CELS, although Defense Minister José Pampuro calculates that some "1,500 retired and active military officers could be brought to testify" before courts.

The Court’s decision — which in the last two years changed four of its nine justices — is not isolated from the human rights policy that President Kirchner brought to the table with his administration. On March 24, 2004, 28 years after the coup that eventually led to 30,000 disappeared adults, 500 kidnapped children and thousands of exiles, Kirchner’s government converted the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), the dictatorship’s largest extermination camp, into the Museum of Remembrance (LP, April 21, 2004). This was seen as a turning point in the human rights policy in place since the restoration of democracy in 1983.

ESMA was the illegal detention center most emblematic of the last dictatorship. The site had not only a clandestine maternity ward, but also a center to falsify documents, including the appropriation of the disappeared persons’ assets. "It is not a grudge nor hate that guides us. It is justice and the fight against impunity," said Kirchner at the museum’s inauguration last year.

"The Court’s ruling has to do with President Kirchner’s policy to end the state of impunity that reigned in Argentina," said Estela Carlotto, president of Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. "The Grandmothers were searching for justice for our grandchildren, but for our children, there had been none. Now, new avenues have been opened," she said. Since the group’s creation in 1977, members have found 80 of the 500 children born in clandestine nurseries functioning during the dictatorship.

"Now we also have to fight the pardons so they are repealed and so those convicted are sent to general prisons, not to VIP jails or barracks," said Hebe de Bonafini, president of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo group.


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