[News] Landmark Human Rights Case in Argentina Puts Torture on Trial
news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jan 8 11:46:32 EST 2010
Landmark Human Rights Case in Argentina Puts Torture on Trial
January 08, 2010
By Marie Trigona
Source: Americas IRC
Argentine courts have launched an investigation
into crimes committed at the ESMA Navy Mechanics
School during the nation's military dictatorship.
The landmark human rights trial is one of the
most far-reaching attempts to bring crimes of
Latin America's bloody past to justice.
For more than three decades, survivors and their
families awaited the trial that finally began on
Dec. 11, 2009. During Argentina's 1976-1983
dictatorship, the ESMA Navy Mechanics School
served as a clandestine detention center, used to
torture and disappear thousands of people. Now 17
former ESMA officers face charges of human rights abuses, torture, and murder.
The ESMA trial was scheduled to begin in November
but was postponed at the request of the defense.
Those on trial include Alfredo Astiz, Jorge
Acosta, Ricardo Cavallo, and Adolfo Dondacited
by human rights groups as among the most brutal
and sinister repressors in the Argentine security
forces. In total, 13 marines, two police, one
coast guard, and one army official are on trial.
More than 200 witnesses will testify in the
historic trial. Groups have stressed the need for
witness protection following a wave of threats
and the disappearance of a key witness, Jorge
Julio Lopez, three years ago. Even President
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has supported
the human rights trial, has received threats.
While traveling in her presidential helicopter,
the helicopter's transit radio signal was
intercepted at almost exactly the same moment as
the ESMA trial opened. Anonymous voices were
broadcast saying the words "kill her," followed
by the military hymn that was played when Jorge
Rafael Videla took power in the March 24, 1976
military coup. Interior Minister Anibal Fernandez
says the threats could be "closely linked" to the ESMA trial.
ESMA, Symbol of State Terrorism
During Argentina's 1976-1983 military
dictatorship, more than 30,000 people were
forcefully disappeared. Kidnapped by commando
groups in the middle of the night, they were
taken to clandestine detention centers. The
largest and most notorious torture center, the
ESMA Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, still
stands today, but as a museum to remind the
nation of the terror of the coup regimes.
Victor Basterra is among the "lucky" ones who
survived the torture at ESMA, where he was held
from 1979-1983. As he walks through the basement
of the ESMA Officers' Quarters, Basterra recalls
the place where he and detainees underwent
unimaginable terror. He points out a small room.
"This area was called the 'huevera' or 'egg cup'
because the walls were lined with egg cartons to drown out screams."
Naval officers, along with other police and
military groups, devised a complex system for the
forced disappearance of individuals using the
ESMA facilities. Most of the prisoners were held
at the Officers' Quarters, where high-ranking
officials lived while women and men were tortured in the basement and attic.
"There were different teams of torturers. The
police, coast guard, naval guard, secret service,
and the penitentiary service all had torture
teams. They rotated," said Basterra. "They were
always active, especially when they had a
prisoner who had information. They would torture
the person for days. On one occasion they
tortured me for two days without stopping. They
would constantly change posts, because the torturers would get tired."
Torture survivors from the ESMA provided much of
the information on what is known about how the
ESMA operated. Basterra, who will testify in the
trial, took photos of officers and prisoners
during his detention at the ESMA, risking his
life to smuggle them out to later provide
evidence for the trials. The photos were used in the first Junta Trial in 1985.
This trial includes only a handful of the
military involved in the complex lexicon of
torture inside the ESMA. More than 5,000 people
were detained and disappeared at the ESMA Navy
Mechanics School. Hundreds of officers, cadets,
and high-ranking officials worked at what was
comparable to a concentration camp.
Juan De Wandelaer, from the Peace and Justice
Service (SERPAJ), says the ESMA trial is a
landmark case for Argentina. "The Argentine Navy
has never faced trial. The ESMA is a symbolic
building and carries a lot of weight for
Argentines. Thousands of people were disappeared
from the ESMA, most of whom were thrown from
planes into the sea after being drugged," says De Wandelaer.
"This trial will bring to light the evidence
showing how the ESMA functioned, because not only
navy and military officers are facing trial, but
also police and civilians. In this aspect, the
trial is important because it will further dismantle the wall of impunity."
Many of the crimes that the trial will examine
were previously held up in court in the mid 80s.
The perpetrators enjoyed freedom for the past 20
years thanks to the Due Obedience and Full Stop
laws passed in the early 90s, which prevented any
successful prosecution of ex-military leaders for
human rights crimes by the courts.
Appropriately named "the blonde angel of death,"
Astiz was 22 when he infiltrated the Mothers of
Plaza de Mayo posing as the brother of one of the
disappeared. He marked his victims with a kiss
outside the Santa Cruz Church. On Dec. 8, 1977
the founders of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Esther
Careaga and Maria Eugenia Ponce, were kidnapped
from the Santa Cruz Church along with 8 others.
Azucena Villaflor, another founding mother, was
kidnapped outside her home just days later. The
three women were taken to the ESMA, and later
dropped into the sea from death flights. The
Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team identified
their bodies in 2005. Astiz was tried in
Argentina in 1985 but the amnesty laws halted the
proceedings. He has since been sentenced to life
in prison by a French court in connection with
the disappearance of French nuns, Léonie Duquet and Alice Domon.
In the courtroom, Astiz wore jeans, a navy blue
sweater, and a sinister smile. During the opening
allegations, which included over 80 accusations
of forced disappearances, torture, and rape, the
accused sat under the scrutiny of dozens of media
outlets who were filming and taking photos. After
seven hours of accusations, as the former
officers were being handcuffed to be transported
to their jail cells, rights activists in the
courtroom chanted: "Like the Nazis, you'll get it
too." Astiz looked at the activists and with a
smile displayed the book he opted to read during
the trialReturn to Kill (Volver a Matar) by Juan
Bautista Yofre, ex-chief of the nation's State
Intelligence Agency. Rights advocates responded,
"30,000 disappearedpresent! Now and Forever!"
Outside the courtroom, survivors and relatives
reiterated the need to keep the historic memory
alive and seek the truth. "They tried to deny us
justice for so many years," said Enrique Fukman,
a torture survivor detained at the ESMA. Fukman
spoke to hundreds of supporters at the trial
opening, expressing his relief that the trial has
begun. Another survivor of the ESMA, Graciela
Daleo, said that the military officials who
decided who would live and who would die are now
vulnerable in the justice system. "Those of us
who survived detention, when returning to the
ESMA for the first time collectively understood
the power of those buildings, because those
buildings sheltered the people who owned life and
death. Now they are the ones being photographed and handcuffed."
Slow but Overdue Justice
Since the Supreme Court overturned amnesty laws
barring courts from trying officers involved in
rights abuses during the dictatorship, 26 trials
have begun and 58 former military and police
officers have been sentenced. Carolina Varsky,
human rights lawyer and director of the Center
for Legal Studies (CELS), says that while justice
has been slow, lawyers must follow strict
procedures to ensure that the sentences served
will be lengthy. "Argentina has progressed in the
trials, using its own judicial system and not an
international court. While we are proud that we
can carry out justice in our own country, I wish
the trials were faster. Because relatives of
victims are dying; the ones who repressed us are
dying. The number of accused who have not
testified because they are declared incompetent
or who have died before going to trial is quite high."
CELS is a human rights organization formed in
1979. The push by CELS for the Trials for Truth
in the 90s, when justice was not possible under
the amnesty laws, led to the Supreme Court's
decision in 2003 to overturn the laws. "We must
play by the rules of the courts. The difficulty
is presenting evidence to the courts 33 years
after the actual events took place, and after the
State destroyed much of the evidence, burning
papers that could incriminate the military," says Varsky.
The persistent work of survivors, relatives, and
human rights advocates over the past three
decades has resulted in the collection of
overwhelming evidence, and more military
personnel will face trial in the coming year. The
proceedings in the ESMA trial are expected to
conclude in six to eight months. "These are not
the trials that we want, but they are the trials
that we have," said Daleo, hoping that human
rights groups can continue to make strides
against impunity for crimes against humanity.
Human rights continue to be an open wound for
much of Latin America, especially the countries
that survived brutal military dictatorships in
the 70s and 80s, such as Argentina, Brazil,
Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Patrick
Rice, a former Irish priest detained by a
commando group in a Buenos Aires shanty town in
1976, said that while many countries have made
progress in seeking justice for crimes committed
by military juntas, some countries still have
impunity laws protecting the military. "We have
an ambiguous situation in Latin America regarding
human rights, with a coup in Honduras and U.S.
military bases in Colombia. There have been a
number of progressive governments in Chile,
Brazil, and Bolivia that have made strides in the
broad sense of human rights. Argentina is taking
a clear lead on human rights, with its trials on
crimes committed during the past. This is very hopeful for Latin America."
The ESMA trial is a welcome step toward justice,
however much remains to be known about the
whereabouts of 30,000 people who were forcefully
disappeared. Argentina's military continues to
deny human right lawyers' requests for the
release of archives and top-secret information
about the crimes the military coup committed. The
disappearance of the witness Julio Lopez in 2006
has reignited painful memories of selective
repression with impunity and fears about the
possibility of violent repercussions against
survivors and witnesses participating in human rights trials.
Despite hard evidence concluding that thousands
of officers were involved in the crimes against
humanity and disappearances, only 280 former
officers are facing trial, and many of those
charged with crimes are under house arrest rather
than awaiting trial in jail. Without the decades
of dedication from survivors, relatives of
victims, and human rights advocates, convicted
assassins like Alfredo Astiz might never have
been tried in the country where they committed
the crimes. While there is hope for Latin
America, even in Argentina the human rights
trials have limited scope in the fight against impunity.
Marie Trigona is a journalist based in Argentina
and writes regularly for the Americas Program
She can be reached at mtrigona(a)msn.com
From: Z Net - The Spirit Of Resistance Lives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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