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?
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Vastly different approaches
Though this debate has generated the same outcome in Argentina and Chile, where a cascade of cases are moving forward against high- and low-ranking officials alike, the manner in which each of these countries has proceeded is vastly different.Skip to next paragraph
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In Argentina, the process has been a chaotic, start-and-stop process, alternately generating great hope, disappointment, and seething resentment.
After human rights groups spent nearly two decades trying to break “the impunity,” former President Nestor Kirchner oversaw the repeal of Argentina’s amnesty laws shortly after being elected president in 2003.
Mr. Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Kirchner, succeeded her husband two years ago, continuing a push for dirty-war prosecution. But opposition to the trials appears to be growing as the political popularity of the Kirchners falls.
Here at the Templar Bar, a lunch spot in downtown Buenos Aires frequented by bankers and other professionals, patrons often discuss politics over steak, potatoes, and other hearty Argentine fare.
“It’s totally political,” says Angel Cesar Maroni, a stock and commodities trader. “This wouldn’t have happened without the government.” He does not have confidence in the trials because they are “totally one-sided,” a reference to the fact that the military is being prosecuted, but Argentina’s guerrillas – who killed several hundred people before the coup – are not.
Mr. Maroni says that the Kirchners, who have publicly vindicated the leftist ideological struggle of the 1970s, are taking revenge. (Under international law there is a continuing duty to prosecute crimes committed by the state. Other crimes, such as those committed by the guerrillas, may be amnestied or subject to a statute of limitations.)
The trials in Argentina have also suffered from logistical problems. Many have languished in the pretrial phase. According to numbers compiled by the public ministry, 445 people are currently being held in pretrial preventive detention. Defendants have been detained for several years or more. Less than 10 percent of cases have reached a verdict, and the lack of a guiding prosecutorial strategy has forced victims to return to courts time and again to relive painful memories.
This frustration was on display last month after a court in Buenos Aires absolved three former Army officials. As the judges retired from the courtroom, an angry crowd chanted “accomplices” at the judges and “murderers” at the absolved defendants. After the trial, Ileana Denis, whose son Carlos was a victim in the case, called the decision a “horror.”
The process in Chile has been more “mature,” according to Jose Zeitune, of the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva. Cases have proceeded in a quicker and more orderly fashion. More than four times as many officials have been convicted than in Argentina.
Nevertheless, activists in Chile have been disappointed by sentences, which have generally been five years or less even in cases of homicide. “It’s not the justice we want,” says Roberto Garreton, who is currently a member of the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Still, he says, it’s a change from the time that the justice system did nothing.