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8 December 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:01am

Justice for the disappeared

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

By Chris Bradley

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.

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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.

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“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.