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Argentina's 'disappeared:' Justice at last or reneging on amnesty?

In Argentina, and elsewhere in Latin America, victims of brutal dictatorships are finally getting their day in court. But by trying former officials who were given amnesty, are nations reopening old political wounds?

By Sam FergusonContributor / December 24, 2009

Former Argentine navy officers Alfredo Astiz (c.), Juan Carlos Rolon (r.), Pablo Garcia Velazco (2nd r.), Oscar Montes (l.) and army officer Julio Cesar Coronel (2nd l.) appear before a trial in Buenos Aires December 11. They are charged with crimes against humanity at the Naval Mechanics School, or ESMA, Argentina's most notorious political prison, during the country's "Dirty War" against leftists from 1976 to 1983.

Marcos Brindicci/REUTERS


Buenos Aires

Just outside Buenos Aires, in the depths of the Rio de la Plata and the South Atlantic, lie the remains of thousands of bodies.

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A generation ago, officials from Argentina’s Naval Mechanics School, known by its Spanish acronym, ESMA, secretly loaded drugged prisoners into aircraft and threw them out over the brown and frigid waters. As many as 5,000 people were “disappeared” at the hands of ESMA, perhaps the most horrifying symbol of South American repression in the 1970s.

Earlier this month, more than 30 years after these crimes were committed, 19 officials from ESMA finally appeared in court.

The trial is the product of a debate emerging all across Latin America: Should amnesty laws passed a generation ago to shield authorities from Latin America’s repressive dictatorships from prosecution still be respected? If so, why?

“It’s a dramatic choice,” says Leo Filippini, a law professor at the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires with expertise in transitional justice. “Should we have late trials against old men, or leave people who tortured to get pensions and retire with military honors … while the victims get no justice and the person who tortured them lives down the street from them?”

In the 1980s, Latin America’s emerging democracies reached an uncomfortable compromise: In exchange for immunity for crimes committed during repressive “anticommunist” rule – including illegal detention, kidnapping, torture, murder, and forced disappearances – the armed forces relinquished power and allowed civilian governments to rule.

Today, however, freed from the pressure of military rebellion, Latin countries are revisiting these deals.

Chile and Argentina are marching ahead with wide-reaching prosecutions. Through a series of judicial opinions, Chile’s amnesty law – decreed in 1978 by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ousted socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973 – has been rendered inapplicable. Approximately 300 officials have been convicted in recent years, and scores more await trial.

Argentina’s amnesty laws – passed in 1986 and 1987, after the military rebelled when the young democratic government began prosecuting the military’s highest authorities – were revoked by the Congress in 2003 and declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2005. Fifty-five officials from Argentina’s dictatorship – which ruled from 1976 to 1983 and “disappeared” as many as 30,000 people during the country’s so-called “dirty war” – have been convicted, and 625 others are being investigated.

According to Juan Méndez, an Argentine-born visiting professor at the Washington College of Law at American University, who has also served on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Chile and Argentina are an “example to the world.” He says they are fulfilling their duty under international law to prosecute crimes committed by the state and are finally providing victims with a remedy after denying them all judicial recourse for decades.