HRW – Human Rights Watch (Author)
Human Rights Developments
Fernando de la Rúa was inaugurated as Argentina's president on December 10, 1999, having been elected at the head of a coalition of opposition parties. His government faced its first major human rights test with the arrests in August of two former members of Argentina's armed forces. The two men, arrested separately in Mexico and Italy, faced prosecution in European courts for abuses committed under military rule. The De la Rúa administration did not attempt to obstruct the cases and provided no more than consular assistance to the detainees.Argentina's current human rights record was marred by serious violations, notably those committed by police forces. Torture and deaths in police stations were frequently reported, and while some cases of abuse were investigated and prosecuted, others were not.
Among the suspicious deaths reported in 2000 was that of twenty-two-year-old Ramón Rojas, found hanged in the Ninth Police Station in the provincial capital of Santiago del Estero on March 19. Another detainee in that city, construction worker Aldo Bravo, claimed that he had been kidnapped from his home by ten to fourteen hooded and armed men on July 7, and held for three days at the police station, during which time he was tortured. The police acknowledged having detained Bravo, but denied his claims of torture, despite corroborating medical evidence. In September, the head of the municipal office for children and adolescents, Father Mario Tenti, accused the Santiago del Estero provincial police of torturing three minors on September 2. The police denied the charges, saying that the boys' injuries were the result of their fighting amongst themselves. None of these cases had been prosecuted as of this writing.
In La Rioja, a police officer was detained for the hanging death of nineteen-year-old Cristian Ruiz in a police cell in March 1999, after it was confirmed that Ruiz had been tortured to death. The head of the La Rioja provincial police, Paulino Zenón Cobresí, admitted that the police beat detainees, although he denied that such treatment was systematic.
Another detainee who apparently died in police custody was twenty-five-year-old Juan Carlos Sánchez. Sánchez was detained by the Corrientes provincial police on January 10, and taken to the headquarters of the Special Crimes Division (formerly the Investigations Brigade) in the provincial capital, a building where at least fifteen people had reported being tortured in recent years. His parents were later told that he had been released, although witnesses said he had not left the building. Workers near the site later claimed to have heard screams from that location. Although the body was never found, eight police officers were indicted on charges of torturing Sánchez to death.
The Sánchez case was not the only suspicious death at the hands of this Corrientes police division: on February 9, twenty-six-year-old Germán Morales was shot dead in front of witnesses near his home by four police officers. No investigation into the events was conducted. In July, however, a commissioner and three police officers were detained and accused of torturing twenty-six-year-old Jorge Marcelo González, a prisoner on furlow, and then shooting him dead on June 30. The Corrientes provincial police chief resigned following the case, and seventy-three other officers were forced to retire.
In Jujuy province, the local delegation of the Federal Police was believed responsible for the shooting death of a storekeeper on July 2. Ten police officers, participating in an anti-drug raid, fired more than forty shots at Manuel Fernández, who was killed by a shot to the head fired at point-blank range. Police said that the shooting occurred because Fernández was carrying drugs and offered resistance, but relatives alleged that he was shot because he had witnessed an illegal act by the police who later shot him. The ten officers were in detention at this writing.
Buenos Aires provincial governor Carlos Ruckauf, who took office in December 1999, reestablished the post of a single police commissioner for the whole of the province, undoing reforms undertaken by the former governor. Ruckauf then appointed Eduardo Raúl Martínez, who had been prosecuted on charges of torturing a German citizen in 1978, although the case was later dismissed. Ruckauf, who during his electoral campaign had called for a harder line on criminals-urging that they be shot-named former rebel army officer Aldo Rico to the post of provincial minister of security. Rico was forced to resign a few months later and was replaced by retired police commissioner Ramón Oreste Verón, who claimed to be the officer with the largest number of killings to his name in provincial history.
On August 30, the president of the Buenos Aires provincial Supreme Court, Guillermo David San Martín, called on Security Minister Ramón Verón to take steps to stop the torture of minors in police stations. San Martín made the demand after reviewing allegations that five young people had been ill-treated in Buenos Aires provincial police stations in Virreyes, San Fernando, Villa Martelli and Escobar (all in Greater Buenos Aires). According to a report by the government adviser for minors in San Isidro, allegations of beatings of minors in police stations doubled in the first seven months of 2000, reaching a total of 159 cases in thirty-three police stations.
The director of security of the municipality of San Miguel (whose mayor was Aldo Rico), former army officer Hugo Vercellotti, asserted in July that the police do and should kill criminals, lamenting that the law represented "an obstacle in the fight against insecurity."
In Mendoza province, two alleged police informers, twenty-eight-year-old José Segundo Zambrano, and twenty-five-year-old Pablo Marcelo Rodríguez, "disappeared" on March 25, reportedly after meeting with a police corporal. Their bloodstained car was found several days later, but their bodies were not discovered until July 3, when they were found in an area used by the police for shooting practice. The police corporal was accused of the killings, which were said to be related to a police "mafia," and twenty officers were detained. On August 24, the trial began of seven former Mendoza police officers implicated in the killing of seventeen-year-old Sebastián Bordón, whose body was found on October 12, 1997, after he had been in police detention. The trial continued at this writing.
In Córdoba, a transvestite known as Vanesa Lorena Ledesma died in police custody on February 16, after being held incommunicado at the eighteenth precinct for five days. The cause of death was reported as "cardiac arrest" but the body reportedly showed signs of torture and beatings. As in previous years, there were frequent allegations of human rights violations against sexual minorities throughout Argentina, with police arbitrarily detaining gay men and transvestites for infractions such as "crimes against public decency" or scandalous conduct.
Fourteen members of the Federal Police were detained after violently suppressing an April 19 demonstration against the government's announced labor reform. The police beat demonstrators, who offered little resistance, attacked one with a knife and shot another man in the testicles. In all, thirty-five demonstrators were wounded by police, while fifty others were detained.
Attacks and threats against journalists continued to be reported. Two of the most serious cases involved the provincial newspapers El Liberal (Santiago del Estero) and La Voz del Interior (Córdoba). In early August, a fake bomb was placed under the car of El Liberal journalist Gregorio Layus. The newspaper, in a previous editorial, had accused the provincial government of Carlos Juárez (governor since 1949 virtually without interruption) of seeking to ruin it. Claiming to be the only independent voice in the province, the newspaper stated that it and its journalists had been the subject of persecution, espionage and legal harassment due to its investigation of corruption and irregularities in the provincial government. La Voz del Interior reported that its correspondent in Santiago del Estero had received telephone calls in July warning him that he could "suffer an accident" if he continued to write critical articles about the governor, and had later received explicit death threats.
Shattering the myth that international justice was a matter of northern countries imposing their will on the south, an Argnetine judge requested that former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet be extradited to face criminal charges for his responsibility for the assasination of Gen. Carlos Prat and his wife. They were killed by a car bomb in Buenos Aires on Spetember 30, 1974. The judge also sought the extradition of other Chileans in the case, including the former chief of Chile's secret police, Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, who was in prison in Chile forhaving carried out a 1974 car-bombing in Washington, D.C. that took the life of former foreign minister Orlando Letelier and his assistant Ronnie Moffitt.
Nearly a quarter century after the coup d'etat that brought to power the military government that ruled from 1976 until 1983, Argentina continued to grapple with its cruel legacy of killings, "disappearances," and other abuses. Federal judge Adolfo Bagnasco investigated the theft of babies during military rule, a case brought by the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo (Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo) in 1996 that was not excluded by the country's amnesty laws. The case involved the armed forces' practice of taking babies who were forcibly "disappeared" with their parents or who were born in captivity after the detention of their parents, and of handing them over to military families and others not considered subversive. Over 200 children are alleged to have been kidnapped in such circumstances. Nine defendants remained under house arrest, including former presidents brigades general Reynaldo Bignone and general Jorge Videla, former junta member admiral Emilio Massera, and former Buenos Aires security zone chief general Carlos Guillermo Suárez Mason. On August 10, another officer was placed under house arrest: retired Gen. Santiago Omar Riveros, the former commander of Military Institutions implicated in the theft of babies born in the Campo de Mayo military hospital. The previous week, the Supreme Court had rejected a petition from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to hand jurisdiction over the case to the military courts.
Although the armed forces publicly accepted the prosecution of retired officers in connection with the kidnapping of children, they expressed concern over judicial efforts to collect information from officers still on active service. In July, army chief Lt. Gen. Ricardo Brinzoni sent his secretary general, Eduardo Alfonso, to visit Armando Barrera, a former officer detained in Bahia Blanca for refusing to testify before a federal court investigating those cases. The government also expressed support for a proposal by Brinzoni to establish a "reconciliation panel," involving the army, human rights groups and the Catholic Church, as a means to try to determine the fate of the "disappeared" without resorting to the courts, a proposal scrapped when human rights organizations rejected it outright.
Defending Human Rights
Although threats against human rights defenders were rare, a few activists faced serious abuses. On July 30, Elisabeth Ceballos was kidnapped, beaten and threatened by three masked men after her husband, journalist Miguel Hernández, participated in a demonstration at the house of Miguel Angel Pérez, a former army officer who had admitted to assassinating a political prisoner in 1976. Ceballos was finally left, bound and gagged, near the meeting place of a human rights group in the town of Cosquín, Córdoba. Hernández and other human rights activists in Cosquín also complained of a series of telephoned death threats, and on July 17 Hernández's house was stoned.
The Role of the International Community
On December 30, 1999, Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón issued an international arrest warrant for forty-eight former officers, previously indicted by him in November, with a view to making a formal extradition request. In August, Justice Minister Ricardo Gil Lavedra stated that the request involved "political questions" relating to national sovereignty, relevant to the executive not the courts, and indicated that the defendants would not be detained since their crimes had already been dealt with in Argentina.
The most encouraging development in Garzón's prosecution was the August 24 arrest of Ricardo Miguel Cavallo in Mexico. Cavallo, accused of being a former torturer in the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), was allegedly implicated in the deaths of at least two people who "disappeared" under military rule. After the arrest, French judge Roger Le Loire also announced that he would seek Cavallo's extradition. Argentine Interior Minister Federico Storani indicated that the government would not intervene in the case and would take no steps to prevent extradition, although consular advice would be available to the detainee. On a September visit to Mexico, President De la Rúa said that he did not discuss the Cavallo case in his official meetings. When questioned by the press, he did, however, express support for the principle of territoriality, indicating that such crimes should be tried in Argentina.
Just a few weeks earlier, on August 6, former army Maj. Jorge Olivera was detained in Rome following an extradition request from French judge Le Loire. Olivera was accused of responsibility for the kidnapping, torture and "disappearance" of French citizen Marie Anne Erize in San Juan province on October 15, 1976. On September 18, however, an Italian court of appeal ordered Olivera's release on the basis of a purported death certificate indicating that Erize had died on November 11, 1976, although the certificate was later shown to have been falsified. Reasoning that Erize was not "disappeared" but dead, the court ruled that the statute of limitations under Italian law had run for the other crimes of which Olivera was accused.
The armed forces made no comment on the case while Olivera was in detention, but following Olivera's release army chief Brinzoni called the detention an offense against Argentine justice. He argued that Olivera had already been judged by the Argentine courts and released under the Due Obedience Law, noting, in addition, that the army was compiling information with a view to advising other military officers who might travel abroad and face prosecution for human rights violations.
In May, Le Loire requested authorization from the Argentine government to travel to the country in order to question some 140 military officers linked to the forced "disappearance" of French citizens. The petition was received by the Argentine Ministry of Justice days after the detention of Olivera, and was under consideration at this writing.
Suits against General Suárez Mason being pursued in the Italian courts since 1986, which involved the "disappearance" of eight people of Italian origin during the military government, were upheld by the First Penal Court of Rome in March. The court rejected the defense lawyers' argument that the cases were barred because of Argentina's Full Stop and Due Obedience Laws. In his ruling, judge Renato D'Andria also underscored the Argentine authorities' lack of cooperation with his investigations of these cases.
The Israeli Parliament announced in August that it had formed an inter-ministerial commission to investigate the fate of some 1,800 Jewish Argentines who "disappeared" in the period 1976 to 1983, in order to establish the whereabouts of their bodies and bury them with appropriate religious rites.
Organization of American States
The OAS special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Santiago Cantón, condemned the threats and attacks suffered by the newspapers El Liberal and La Voz del Interior, calling on provincial authorities to investigate the incidents and punish those found responsible. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) received 123 complaints relating to Argentina during 1999, and, as of mid-2000, maintained fifty-eight open cases on the country.
In one important case, the IACHR requested the Argentine government to provide information on police powers of detention. The commission was examining a controversial November 1998 decision of the Argentine Supreme Court, in which the court upheld the power of the police to detain a person, without an arrest warrant, solely on the grounds that he or she was deemed to have been acting "suspiciously."
The IACHR also reiterated its call for the thirteen prisoners convicted of the 1989 attack on the La Tablada barracks to be granted a new trial, in light of the serious irregularities marring the first proceedings. Abundant evidence suggested that the prisoners had been tortured while in the custody of the army, while others had been killed. On September 6, it was announced that the remains of Iván Ruíz and Carlos Quito Burgos, two of the five persons who "disappeared" after attacking the barracks, had been identified. Both had apparently been shot by members of the army, probably after capture. In Congress, a bill was introduced to permit the conditional release of the prisoners while their conviction was being reviewed, but as of this writing it had not been debated.
By invitation of the Argentine government, the IACHR was also to send an observer to review investigations of the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association Association (Asociación Mutual Israelita-Argentina, AMIA), an attack in which eighty-six people died.
On a brief visit to Buenos Aires in August, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with NGO representatives and Jewish community leaders, and promised U.S. government cooperation in investigating the AMIA bombing and the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy. Albright also vowed to cooperate in the investigation of abuses that occurred during the military government, stating that she would seek to ensure that the State Department opened its archives on the repression of that period.