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Argentine human rights groups refuse to let military off the hook

``When I arrived there, I thought I had arrived at the entrance to hell. The guards were pushing me from one side to the other as though playing `Ping-Pong.' I could hear the screams of the tortured prisoners, and I saw people constantly passing on their way to the `machine;' the `machine' was a bed of metal springs used to administer electric shocks to political prisoners.'' This account - part of the testimony of one of the survivors of a secret detention center operated by the Argentine armed forces during the ``dirty war'' of the mid-1970s - was published last week in a newspaper of Las Madres de La Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires.

``Las Madres'' - the organization of mothers of some 9,000 who disappeared in that war - and other human rights groups here are determined that Argentina should not forget the deep wounds that the military inflicted on Argentine society following the 1976 coup.

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They are worried - and furious - about a recent law passed by the Congress known as the punto final (``full stop'') designed to bring to an end the human rights trials of security forces involved in the repression. So far, 10 military and police officials at the top of the chain of command have been convicted, and two of them have been sentenced to life imprisonment.

On Thursday, the mothers began a campaign to gather millions of signatures in protest against the law. The signatures are being gathered on white scarves, the emblem of the group that marched every Thursday for several years in the Plaza del Mayo in Buenos Aires to demand from the military regime information on their missing relatives.

The punto final was passed just before Christmas at the urging of the democratic government of President Ra'ul Alfons'in after considerable pressure from the military. The law gives 60 days (until Feb. 22) for the courts to receive any further charges against alleged human rights violators and for the accused in turn to be cited to appear before the courts for investigatory hearings. After that date, any of the accused not cited will be freed from any further action through the courts.

The government's objective was to accelerate the proceedings, but it was also expected that only a few more officers, other than the cases currently scheduled to be heard by the courts, would ever be placed on trial. Now, the courts have leapt into action. It is the height of the summer holiday season here. However, instead of closing down for a month, the courts are working overtime to process the rush of new charges presented to them in the past two weeks.

A group of 11 human rights organizations presented a list of 650 named military and police officials that includes 20 percent of the present top military high command, together with documentary evidence to justify the courts initiating investigatory hearings. An additional 250 accused individuals are known only by code names, but the courts have the power to initiate investigations to identify them.

There is, therefore, the possibility that the courts could keep cases open on almost 1,000 military and police personnel after the February time limit.

The human rights groups say the courts have the capacity to do this, and they threaten to seek the dismissal of the judges through Congress for negligence if they don't. They are also challenging the constitutionality of the punto final law, arguing that it contradicts an article of the Constitution that states that all people are equal before the legal system, that the new law creates an exception for the military.

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The head of the armed forces, Gen. R'ios Erenu, may also be in something of a quandary. He reportedly promised President Alfons'in that in return for the punto final bill he would see to it that any officer who might still be called to the court would be brought there ``at pistol point,'' if necessary. He might now find a few pistols pointing back at him in the barracks if, by the end of February, it seems that a substantial part of the Argentine officer corps might end up facing an early end to their careers and possibly time behind bars.

What the courts do in the next six weeks may not be what either the government or the armed forces were expecting - that is, to settle accounts in earnest for the dirty war in the hope of preventing a tragic repetition of what tore Argentina apart in the late 1970s.

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