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Justice for the disappeared

The battle to bring the murderers and torturers of the Argentinian military dictatorship to book has

When Raúl Alfonsín became Argentina's new president on 10th December 1983, he came to power on a wave of optimism.

Ranking highly among those hopes was that of justice for the crimes of the ousted military dictatorship.

The era of indiscriminate torture and murder, in which thousands of citizens including pregnant women, nuns, students, high-school pupils, journalists and left-leaning politicians lost their lives, was over. It was time to make amends.

Initially, military leaders were rounded-up and brought before the courts, but soon - in an act of staggering betrayal - new laws granted them impunity.

During the ensuing years hopes for justice faded but they were never extinguished. And now, as Argentinians celebrate 25 years of democracy, they do so knowing the long process of justice is finally getting somewhere.

One of Alfonsín’s first acts had been to organise the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, which documented the abuses of the dictatorship in order to compile their report, ‘Nunca Mas’ (Never Again). Legal proceedings were begun against the various members of the military juntas and, in 1985, they were all found guilty.

“That was a landmark in terms of the judicial process,” says Gaston Chillier, executive director of the Centre of Legal and Social Studies (CELS), who have been monitoring human rights in Argentina for nearly thirty years.

But that would be as good as it got. Under pressure from the military, Alfonsín passed the laws of ‘full stop’ and ‘due obedience’ which effectively ended the justice process. In 1990, new president Carlos Menem pardoned those who had already been sentenced. The scenario only changed with the 2003 election of Néstor Kirchner.

“Kirchner began everything,” says Irma Rojas of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose daughter was murdered and whose grandchild was only located last year, after disappearing during the dictatorship. “He opened the door for human rights.”

The torture and disappearances carried out by the military were labelled crimes against humanity and the laws against their prosecution were declared unconstitutional by Argentina’s Supreme Court. The first new trial for 20 years began in 2005 but, for some human rights organisations, justice has still been dragging its feet. Chillier, however, defends the process.

“One problem was that there wasn’t a clear strategy in advance,” he explains. “The fact that so many years have passed means that there are difficulties with producing evidence, many witnesses have died, many of those accused have died and others have committed suicide; so, when you put it in context, it’s definitely positive.”

During the course of this year the scenario has become even more positive. According to the latest figures, 36 people have now been sentenced - a number which has doubled in the last six months alone. Many high profile cases have come to court such as that of Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, former chief of the third army corps, who was responsible for torture centres across ten Argentine provinces. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Despite all this, CELS still see room for improvement. Their main worry is the standard of witness protection for those giving evidence. Many of those involved have suffered threats and three have so far been kidnapped, with one, Julio Lopez, never reappearing.

For others, there is the question of where prisoners are detained, with many permitted to stay at home with their families or in military barracks with former colleagues. “We want appropriate justice, not just people being put under house arrest or in special prisons where they put them, but in a proper prison,” demands Irma Rojas.

Chillier defends this policy: “One thing we want to ensure is the legitimacy of the trials. Part of that means ensuring the rights of the accused, and the right to house arrest for those over 70 is something that is granted to all, regardless of the crimes involved,” he says. However he complains of cases where this has led to an obvious lack of control, giving examples of detainees who have had sufficient freedom to throw parties, to commit suicide, or even to escape.

But these criticisms cannot detract from the increasing success of the human rights movement. And they are getting justice on their own terms. The reopening of the trials has turned Argentina, alongside Chile, into one of the exceptional cases where a country is carrying out human rights trials under its own jurisdiction, without appeal to international courts.

“Despite all the difficulties, the processes of justice in Argentina speak of the strength of state institutions that are doing their utmost to make sure these crimes are tried in their own courts,” says Chillier. And that, he tells me, makes it all the more satisfying.

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State