Argentina takes steps to bring Dirty War-era criminals to justice before death

Argentina is taking steps, like limiting pre-verdict statements, to speed up their judicial process in an effort to bring closure to victims of dictatorship-era crimes before alleged perpetrators die of old age.

Enrique Marcarian/Reuters
Former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla (l.) and Reynaldo Bignone, a former general who ruled Argentina in 1982-1983, listen to the verdict during their trial in a courthouse in Buenos Aires, on July 5, 2012.

Inscribed on a vast wall in the main cemetery in Santiago, Chile are the names of approximately 3,000 people “disappeared” by the military government that ruled there from 1973 to 1990. The head of that government, Augusto Pinochet, died in 2006 without ever being tried for crimes against humanity, and his impunity is a source of anger for many Chileans who wanted him to face the justice system. 

In contrast to Chile, last week in neighboring Argentina former dictators Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone were handed prison sentences for overseeing the systematic kidnapping of babies from activists disappeared – kidnapped and murdered – during Argentina's 1976-1983 Dirty War.

Both Mr. Videla and Mr. Bignone, 86 and 84 respectively, are already serving life sentences for human rights abuses. But with close to 1,000 others linked to the military regime being investigated for similar crimes, the Argentine judiciary is under enormous stress. In Argentina more than 250 alleged perpetrators of crimes against humanity have passed away without being brought to justice. Others are too unwell to face the courts. In response, the Argentine court system is stepping up its efforts to create an environment where dictatorship-era crimes can be tried in a timely manner. It is an attempt to not only bring justice, but a sense of closure to a tragic period in the country's recent past.

“Human rights abuses are an absolute priority,” said Pedro David, president of Argentina’s second-highest criminal court, in December.

In the past, cases involved huge volumes of evidence and victims were required to testify on several occasions. Trials have since been expedited by allowing judges to combine cases. Victims may also testify just once for multiple defendants. While only two convictions were brought in 2006, there were more than 100 in 2010.

“It hurts me to see these trials taking so long,” said former President Néstor Kirchner in 2006. Mr. Kirchner took one of the first steps to bring alleged perpetrators to court by overturning impunity laws introduced by previous governments that protected former leaders like Videla and the dictatorship.

Earlier this year Kirchner’s wife and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, called for the trials to be completed by the time her term ends in 2015, echoing comments she made in 2007.

Mr. David proposed a time limit for bringing charges against defendants. It took four months to read the charges against those accused of violence at ESMA, the military’s largest detention center.

Courts have also suggested defendants must be present only when they are being questioned and at the end of the trial – so health problems don’t slow the process – and that a time limit be placed on their pre-verdict statements.

“It’s a way of abbreviating lengthy trials, guaranteeing defendants don’t draw things out, and helping victims,” says Juan García, a member of Hijos, a group for people whose parents were disappeared by the military. 

Mr. García was kidnapped in 1976 as a toddler and abandoned in an orphanage after his father was murdered.

Those who committed crimes against humanity need to be tried so Argentina’s executive, judiciary, and legislature keep their honor, García says. “We can’t allow mass murderers to be free. They have to know they’ll be put on the stand.”

In Argentina, the dictatorship disappeared an estimated 30,000 people. Many were drugged and thrown out of planes into the Río de la Plata, the river running alongside Buenos Aires.

Today, a memorial similar to the one in Santiago’s cemetery sits next to the river. “It’s a constant reminder of that era of state terrorism,” says García. “And our fight for justice will ensure it’s never repeated.”

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