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Justice’s fight against time
Jenny Manrique
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Judicial system overflowing with human rights cases.

Five years after two impunity laws were declared unconstitutional and overturned, opening the flood gates to hundreds of human rights cases stemming from the 1976-83 military dictatorship, there are signs that victims are finally starting to see justice.

But challenges remain as the judicial system is overwhelmed with cases whose alleged authors are dying off.

By last October, 255 alleged human rights criminals facing trial had died, while more than 70 percent of the cases are currently hearing testimony, according to figures from the Legal and Social Studies Center. An average of around 10 human rights cases a year have been seen through to a verdict since the laws were repealed, the center says.

“At this rate, we figure we´ll have trials for 20 years,” said Lorena Balardini, a researcher at the center. She recommended that the cases are lumped together by the province or clandestine detention center where the alleged crimes took place, or by suspected human rights violator, to speed up the process.

Even though trials for dictatorship-era crimes took off during the government of the late ex-President Néstor Kirchner, who governed from 2003 to 2007, an initiative of his administration and behind that, decades of campaigning by human rights activists,  there are currently around 1,000 suspected human rights violators, overwhelming the system.

On Nov. 8, former navy Adm. Emilio Massera died at age 85. A member of the military junta that led the 1976 coup, Massera had been sentenced to life in prison during the 1983-89 government of Raúl Alfonsín (1983-89), during the so-called “Juntas Trial”, but former President Carlos Menem (1989-99) pardoned him, even though he had been found responsible for more than 700 crimes, including 83 murders.

Shared courtrooms
Even in the large trials that group various cases of violations committed in clandestine detention centers, such as in the notorious Navy Mechanics School, the witnesses have to give testimony several times, and courtrooms are shared. In February, initial testimony is scheduled for a massive trial on the kidnapping of children, which was brought by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo rights group in 1996.

“Today there is new testimony for events that weren´t the focus of the cases, such as sexual violence, or the theft of minors, of which we have 35 cases,” said María Inés Bedia, a lawyer with the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

“But for us, the biggest challenge is to find the 400 children who were taken [by military personnel],” she added. The organization has helped locate 102 disappeared children.

A key element in the trials of the human rights repressors is the Argentine Anthropological Forensic Team, which focuses on human rights crimes. Founded in 1984 to investigate cases of disappearances in Argentina, the office has been able to identify 300 people buried in mass graves in military installations or municipal cemeteries. The National Commission on the Forced Disappearance of Persons, which Alfonsín created, has received reports of around 10,000 disappearances during the dictatorship. There are still remains of 600 people left to be identified by the forensic scientists in their Buenos Aires lab and also in Cordoba and Tucuman, where the dictatorship-era repression was especially strong.

On Nov. 16, Patricia Bernardi, one of the forensic group´s founders, brought her evidence to a courtroom where a trial took place of military personnel accused of violations in El Vesubio detention center. She presented evidence that showed that an alleged clash between subversives and soldiers on April 28, 1977, in which five guerrillas were said to have died, was actually the kidnapping of civilians who were shot to death in Buenos Aires.

“It was a way to show the justice system that the alleged shootout was really a kidnapping and murder of people,” said Bernardi, who was presenting testimony for the fourth time since 2005, some of those occasions in front of the alleged repressors themselves, to whom she ironically had to explain what a bullet wound is. “They seem [as hard as] wood,” she said. “Nothing moves them. But it is not our objective to raise their awareness, but rather that the judge believes that the scientific proof is valid and the relative believes in the identification.”

“The greatest satisfaction is agreeing upon a restitution and responding to a family, a moment in which one finds a purpose to what one is doing,” said Silvana Turner, another anthropologist of the 45-person team who says that this process should be a form of healing, not something that traumatizes the relatives all over again. That is why the family members decide what steps to accompany, from the notification of the courts so the cases are heard, until the cremation of the remains.

Using DNA
The forensic scientists speeded up in the last year thanks to the Latin American Initiative for the Disappearance of Persons, a DNA data bank in which families can leave blood samples taken for free that can be cross referenced with bones found in graves around the country. There are currently more than 7,000 samples in the bank.

“It´s a race against time because we see many parents die without knowing what happened to their children, without any possibility of having their remains, without being able to see their repressors brought to trial because they [too] are dying,” said Turner. The alleged repressors´ defense, which still today does not recognize civilian courts and denies the allegations, submits cassation appeals one after another, a reason why the Supreme Court has confirmed conviction only three times until now: for the repressors Julio Héctor Simón and Miguel Etchecolatz in 2006 — in a case where key witness Julio López disappeared in the middle of the trial — and Christian Von Wernich in 2007.

“Some judges and prosecutors were officials during the dictatorship and have had a direct interest in stopping the investigations,” said Jorge Auat, the chief prosecutor for human rights crimes, a special office created in 2007. “We have overcome issues like the VIP prisons [in military installations], but if there are no firm sentences, impunity will continue in formal terms.”

His office found that there are 783 current cases, omitting the resumed cases, 377 of which have been brought to trial and as a result 131 people were convicted.

Even though Argentina is one of the few countries that are effectively trying members of the military, organizations such as the Peace and Justice Service, whose president is Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Amnesty International and the Coordinating Group against Police and Institutional Repression have found that only human rights violations committed during the dictatorship are being prosecuted, and not the ones committed presently in democracy, particularly against indigenous peoples and migrants, all pending issues for Argentina to address.
—Latinamerica Press.


Forensic anthropologists exhume the remains of dictatorship-era human rights victims. (Photo: Argentine Anthropological Forensic Team).
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