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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Argentina

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1997
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Argentina, 30 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa1d28.html [accessed 21 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997

 

Argentina is a federal constitutional democracy with an executive branch headed by an elected president, a bicameral legislature, and a separate judiciary. In 1995 voters reelected President Carlos Saul Menem to a second term that runs until 1999. His Justicialist party won a majority of seats in both houses of Congress.

The President is the constitutional commander in chief, and a civilian Defense Minister oversees the armed forces. The responsibility for maintaining law and order is shared by several law enforcement agencies. The Federal Police report to the Interior Minister, as do the Border Police and Coast Guard. Provincial police are subordinate to the respective provincial governors. Provincial policemen continued to commit human rights abuses.

Argentina has a mixed agricultural, industrial, and service economy. An economic reform and structural adjustment program, begun in 1989, led to 3 years of high growth with sharply reduced inflation, and spurred competitiveness. As a result of privatization, private sector adjustment, and a lingering recession, however, the national unemployment rate remained high at 17.2 percent. The high cost of living affected those on low fixed incomes the most, although the entire country benefited from the end of hyperinflation.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, there were problems in some areas. There continue to be instances of extrajudicial killings and physical mistreatment of detainees by local police, who also arbitrarily arrest and detain citizens. However, provincial authorities investigated, tried, and convicted a number of police officials for such abuses. Prison conditions are poor. The judicial system is subject to political influence at times and to inordinate delays, resulting in lengthy pretrial detention. Discrimination and violence against women are also problems. Revelations of extrajudicial killings by former military officers who served under the 1976-83 military government sparked a national debate over a full accounting of those who disappeared during that period. The Government and the armed forces said, however, that they have no information about those who disappeared beyond that released in 1984 by the National Commission on Disappeared Persons and collected since then by the Interior Ministry's Subsecretariat for Human and Social Rights.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of politically motivated extrajudicial killings.

Provincial police, however, were believed responsible for a number of other extrajudicial killings and were sometimes accused of being "trigger happy." Provincial governments have investigated and in some instances detained and tried the officers involved. For example, in February the authorities placed a Buenos Aires provincial policeman in preventive custody for the killing of Ramon Roldan, shot while seated in the back of a car that was rushing his daughter to a hospital. In March four police officers in the same province were arrested, and their supervisors relieved of duty, in connection with the killing of a 16-year-old boy, Cristian Campos, and the burning of his remains. In June the authorities arrested a policeman in the province of Cordoba in connection with the shooting death of 19-year-old Ariel Lastra.

In March the governor of the province of Tucuman dismissed the chief of the provincial police after the latter was quoted as saying he would like to "put a few bullets" into thieves in the province. In September the chief of police of the province of Buenos Aires was also replaced.

Two gunmen attempted to kill a former police doctor, Jorge Antonio Berges, who had been convicted in December 1986 of aiding in the torture of prisoners and of delivering the babies of illegally detained women in the 1970's and facilitating their fraudulent adoptions. A domestic criminal group, the People's Revolutionary Organization, claimed responsibility for the attack and said it tried to kill Berges in the name of all those who had suffered at the hands of the "torturers" of the military dictatorship.

In January a court sentenced an army officer and two noncommissioned officers to up to 15 years in prison for the 1994 murder of Omar Carrasco, a young army recruit who was beaten to death during a hazing incident in Neuquen. In August the authorities indicted two army officers in an investigation of alleged attempts to cover up the crime. In May a court sentenced three officers in the province of Jujuy to prison terms of 16 years for the kidnap and murder in 1994 of a young engineer, Diego Rodriguez Laguens.

The authorities arrested 15 members of the Buenos Aires provincial police, including 3 high-ranking officers and a former officer, in connection with the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. In August they charged the 4 officers with homicide on the grounds that they allegedly supplied the van that was filled with explosives; the bomb killed 87 people and injured 250 others. At year's end, the 4 remained in jail; all 15 will be tried.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

In May a judge in La Plata ordered the arrest of two police officers accused of torturing to death a 23-year-old student, Miguel Bru, who disappeared in 1993. In June the province of Mendoza appointed two commissions to investigate the disappearances of three men (Adolfo Garrido, Raul Baigorria, and Cristian Guardatti) in two separate incidents in 1990 and 1992, and to determine appropriate levels of compensation for their families. According to witnesses, the three were in the custody of provincial police when they were last seen. The families had filed suit in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and in January the President instructed the Foreign Ministry to enter into discussions with them in order to arrive at a settlement. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an ad hoc investigative commission established an arbitration award to be paid to the victims and issued a report on August 16. The IACHR stated in October, however, that the recommendations of the ad hoc committee had not been carried out and that no settlement had been reached and called on the Government to publish and distribute the ad hoc committee's report.

Revelations concerning disappearances under the 1976-83 military regime continued to claim public attention, and a federal court promised anonymity to anyone who would come forward with new information. The court reactivated the cases of two French nuns and a Swedish student who disappeared at different times during the period of military rule, in an attempt to determine their fate. The navy officer convicted in absentia in France for the disappearance of the nuns, and wanted in Sweden for the disappearance of the Swede, took early retirement.

In September a federal judge in Spain opened a criminal investigation into the torture, disappearance, and killing of 266 Spanish citizens in Argentina during the military regime. He charged 97 former and active military and police officers in the case and seeks to interrogate them in Spain or Argentina. They reportedly include members of military juntas, commanders of clandestine jails, and doctors who attended torture sessions. A parallel investigation focuses on the alleged abduction of 54 children of Spanish citizens who remain missing.

Most reliable estimates place the number of those who disappeared between 10,000 and 15,000. In 1984 the National Commission on Disappeared Persons issued a report that lists 8,961 names based on public testimony from friends, relatives, and other witnesses. Since then, the Ministry of the Interior's Subsecretariat for Human and Social Rights has added approximately 2,500 new names, also based on voluntary reporting.

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group, continued efforts to reunite the children of couples who disappeared under the military regime with their biological next-of-kin. The group is working with the National Commission on the Right to Identity, an agency of the Subsecretariat for Human and Social Rights.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits torture, and the Criminal Code provides penalties for torture that are similar to those for homicide. Nevertheless, police brutality remains a serious problem. In February a court sentenced a policeman in Mar del Plata to 9 years in prison for torturing a 15-year-old boy who had been arrested on suspicion of raping a child. In April the authorities arrested two policemen in Posadas on suspicion of raping a 13-year-old girl in a police station where they had taken her in what they said was a crackdown on prostitution. In April two policemen in Cordoba were detained on suspicion of raping a young woman who had come to a local jail to visit a prisoner.

In February the government of Buenos Aires province announced the suspension, pending further investigation, of 11 police officers, including 1 inspector and 2 deputy inspectors, for their role in violently repressing a student demonstration at the La Plata police headquarters. This and other incidents of hasty use of force by the provincial police impelled President Menem to meet with his senior security officials and the police chiefs of all the provinces in order to analyze the problem. They adopted an action plan calling for more human rights training for police officers, more careful recruiting, and closer community liaison, among other measures.

On September 13, the Government agreed to an out-of-court settlement with Jose Siderman, who had sued it in a U.S. court for torture and other abuses that he suffered at the hands of the l976-83 military regime, as well as abuses committed by later governments.

Prison conditions are poor in a number of overcrowded jails where the facilities are old and dilapidated. Severe overcrowding apparently contributed to a riot in March in the Villa Floresta prison near Bahia Blanca, the second riot there in 3 months. In March inmates at the Sierra Chica maximum security penitentiary in Buenos Aires province mutinied after a botched escape attempt. In the ensuing battles between rival gangs, one inmate was killed, seven died in a fire touched off by the riot, and other prisoners were reported missing. In addition, the rioters took hostages, including a judge who arrived to negotiate an end to the uprising.

In April there was a wave of prison riots in the province of Buenos Aires and elsewhere in the nation. A total of 17 prisons were affected, throughout the country, with an estimated 5,600 prisoners in active revolt. An additional 6,000 prisoners participated in hunger strikes or signed petitions, out of a national prison population of 27,000. The prisoners complained about overcrowding in the jails, the slow pace of resolving their cases, excessive bail amounts, and incongruous criminal penalties (e.g., the sentence for auto theft is 9 years longer than that for manslaughter). In the Buenos Aires provincial penitentiary system, courts have yet to try and convict 70 percent of the prisoners. The prisoners sought compliance with a 1994 law that gives unsentenced prisoners 2 days' credit toward their final sentence for every day served prior to sentencing, after a period of 2 years.

To help relieve prison overcrowding in the province of Buenos Aires, the Government solicited bids for the construction of two new prisons designed to be more secure and to offer better living conditions for inmates. The Government is also exploring the possibility of contracting some prison services to private firms in order to upgrade conditions.

The Government permits prison visits by independent human rights monitors.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Penal Code places limits on the arrest and investigatory power of the police and the judiciary, but provincial police often ignored these restrictions. Human rights groups find it difficult to document such incidents, because victims are reluctant to file complaints.

Police detain teenagers and young adults, sometimes overnight, sometimes for an entire weekend, without formal charges. They do not always provide such detainees with the opportunity to call their families or an attorney. These detainees are released only upon a complaint from relatives or legal counsel.

The law provides for the right to bail, and it is utilized in practice. Nonetheless, the law allows pretrial detention for up to 2 years, and the slow pace of criminal trials often results in lengthy pretrial detention periods.

The law does not permit involuntary exile, and it is not practiced.

e. Denial of a Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary. While it is nominally independent and impartial, its processes are inefficient, complicated, and, at times, subject to political influence.

The judicial system is divided into federal and provincial courts, each headed by a Supreme Court with chambers of appeal and section courts below it. The system is hampered by inordinate delays, procedural logjams, changes of judges, and incompetence. Allegations of corruption are widely reported, especially in civil cases.

Trials are public and defendants have the right to legal counsel and defense witnesses. A panel of judges decides guilt or innocence. In 1992 some federal and provincial courts began deciding cases using oral trials instead of the practice of written submissions. Oral trials are less time consuming, and they have helped reduce the number of prison inmates awaiting trial. Nevertheless, lawyers and judges are still struggling to adjust to the new procedures, and substantial elements of the old system remain. For example, before the oral part of a trial begins, judges receive written documentation regarding the case which, according to prominent legal experts, can bias a judge before oral testimony is heard.

Constitutional reforms in 1994 provided for a blue-ribbon judicial council that would have responsibility for federal court administration and the selection and removal of judges. However, due to disagreement over the composition of the council, Congress has not yet passed the necessary enabling legislation.

International human rights groups have claimed that Juan Antonio Puigjane, a Capuchin monk sentenced to prison with 19 others in a 1989 attack on an army barracks, is jailed for political reasons. Argentine officials maintain, however, that Puigjane was properly tried and convicted for involvement in a violent rebellion against a democratically elected government. There were no other reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home or Correspondence

The Constitution prohibits such practices, and government authorities generally respect these prohibitions. Violations are subject to legal sanction, although in practice, local police have the right to stop and search individuals without probable cause.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, and the Government respects these rights in practice. An independent press and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure freedom of speech and of the press, including academic freedom.

There were several reported attacks on journalists. In February gunshots were fired at the office of a news photographer in Cordoba who had taken graphic photos of a prison riot. In August two journalists in the province of San Juan complained to the Association of Argentine News Organizations (ADEPA) that their homes had been deliberately set on fire. The perpetrators of the attacks were unknown. In June ADEPA released a statement criticizing proposed laws it said would threaten freedom of the press, including a bill to increase fines for publishing information about offenses by minors and a draft anticorruption law that included penalties for publishing financial disclosure statements concerning inheritances. The Government described the accusation as "profoundly unfair" and called on ADEPA to acknowledge the extent of press freedom that existed; ADEPA said that it would continue to warn against such proposals.

In March the judges hearing a controversial murder case in Catamarca province announced a suspension of radio and television coverage of the trial, thereby provoking sharp public reaction and rallies throughout the country. Although fascination with the soap opera-like courtroom drama is partly responsible for the outcry, many also believed that the judges decided to ban media access as part of a deal to get the defendant, the son of an influential politician, an acquittal. Less than 48 hours later, the Catamarca Supreme Court ordered the trial to resume media coverage, but the judges hearing the case subsequently resigned, charging political interference in the process.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution and laws provide for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution and law provide for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice.

The Government recognizes as refugees those persons who meet the criteria of the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The refugee eligibility committee, composed of representatives of the Ministries of Justice, Foreign Affairs, and the Interior is responsible for determining a refugee's status. A representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees may participate in committee hearings, but may not vote. The Government has granted refugee status to numerous persons and accepted them for resettlement. The issue of the provision of first asylum, however, has rarely arisen. There were no reports of the forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change their Government

Since its return to democratic government in 1983, Argentina has held periodic free and fair elections to choose federal, provincial, and municipal office holders. Universal adult suffrage is obligatory in national elections. Political parties of varying ideologies operate freely and openly. The revised Constitution provides that all adult citizens shall enjoy full participation in the political process, and they do so in practice.

The Constitution stipulates that the internal regulations of political parties and party nominations for elections be subject to affirmative action requirements to assure that women are represented in elective office. A 1993 decree implementing a 1991 law required that a minimum of 30 percent of all political party lists of candidates be female. As a result, the presence of women in the Congress is increasing. There are 72 women in the 257-seat Chamber of Deputies and 4 of 50 Senators are women. Women are also assuming positions of greater authority in provincial and local governments.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A wide variety of human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are generally cooperative and responsive to their views.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language or Social Status

The Constitution and federal law provide for equality for all citizens. The 1988 Antidiscrimination Law establishes a series of penalties from 1 month to 3 years' imprisonment for anyone who arbitrarily restricts, obstructs, or restrains a person based on "race, religion, nationality, ideology, political opinion, sex, economic position, social class, or physical characteristics." There is no evidence of any systematic effort to abridge these rights by the Government or by private groups.

Women

Violence and sexual harassment against women are problems. Insensitivity among police and judges sometimes discourages women from reporting assaults, especially domestic violence. The National Women's Council has been working with law enforcement authorities to include in their police training curriculum material on handling cases of violence against women. Many public and private institutions offer prevention programs and provide support and treatment for women who have been abused.

Women still encounter economic discrimination and occupy a disproportionate number of lower paying jobs. Often they are paid less than men for equal work, even though this is explicitly prohibited by law. Female labor leaders pressed their male counterparts for affirmative action programs within the trade union movement to counteract this. Women are also found disproportionately in the informal sector, where they are effectively denied work-related economic and social benefits enjoyed by those in the formal sector.

The National Women's Council, created in 1992 in response to recommendations in the United Nations Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, carried out programs to promote equal opportunity for women in education and employment, encourage the participation of women in politics, and support women's rights programs at the provincial level. Provisions in the revised Constitution have greatly increased women's participation in politics.

Children

The 1994 Constitution incorporates the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Ministry of Interior's Subsecretariat for Human and Social Rights works with the United Nations Children's Fund and other international agencies to promote children's rights and well-being.

Historically, Argentina has had numerous programs to provide public education, health protection, and recreational services for all children, regardless of class or economic status. According to some nongovernmental organization (NGO) and church sources, however, child abuse and prostitution are on the rise, and the National Council on Children and the Family believes that those affected tend to be younger than previously. The Council, which the Government established in 1990, works actively with federal and local agencies to improve child protection programs. The federal capital, most of the 24 provinces, and the Federal Government have passed child protection laws.

People with Disabilities

A 1994 law aimed at eliminating physical barriers to disabled persons regulates standards regarding access to public buildings, parks, plazas, stairs, and pedestrian areas. An increasing number of street curbs in Buenos Aires have been modified to accommodate wheel chairs, but few buildings and public areas in the capital or other cities offer easy access to persons with disabilities.

In June Congress passed a law creating a federal disabilities council composed of national, provincial, and NGO representatives and chaired by the President of the National Advisory Commission for the Integration of Disabled Persons, who has the rank of state secretary within the Federal Government. Federal law also prohibits discrimination against the disabled in employment. Since establishment of the National Program Against Discrimination in 1994, the largest single group bringing complaints has been disabled persons.

Indigenous People

The revised Constitution provides the right of minorities to be represented in government and incorporates international agreements intended to promote their economic, social, and cultural rights. Estimates of the size of the indigenous population vary from 60,000 to 150,000, but the National Statistical Institute put the figure at below 100,000 as of 1992. Most live in the northern and northwestern provinces and in the far south. Their standard of living is considerably below the average, and they have higher rates of illiteracy, chronic diseases, and unemployment. Indigenous groups are sometimes involved in disputes over tribal lands, which tend to be prolonged due to an inefficient court system unable to expedite conflicting land title claims.

The Kolla Indians made some progress in their efforts to obtain title to ancestral lands, following a protest and the blocking of roads in July. The Mapuche Indians in Patagonia organized protests for similar reasons.

Religious Minorities

The large Jewish community alleges that anti-Semitism exists in the military and security services and that this may have affected the Government's investigation of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy and the 1994 bombing of AMIA, a Jewish cultural center. The Government denies these allegations and cites the immense complexity of investigating terrorist cases as the principal reason for the lack of definitive results to date. There were concrete, if modest, advances in the AMIA investigation, including the arrest of several senior provincial police officers alleged to have procured a van used as a carbomb in the attack (see Section 1.a.). In November the Government announced an increase in the reward it had offered since 1994 for information or evidence to "clarify the acts of international terrorism" against the Israeli embassy and the AMIA center from $2 million to $3 million.

The Government's desire to accommodate the sensitivities of the Jewish community was evident in July, when Justice Minister Rodolfo Barra, already a controversial figure for other reasons, resigned abruptly, in the face of growing evidence that he had been a member of a pro-Nazi youth movement. (Barra later became a legal adviser to the Senate.) When an Italian court acquitted Nazi officer Erich Priebke, who had resided in Argentina until his extradition for trial in Rome, the Government immediately announced that Priebke would not be allowed to reenter the country.

In October vandals desecrated the predominantly Jewish La Tablada cemetery outside Buenos Aires, in the third incident of its kind during the year. The vandals smashed or defaced scores of tombstones and mausoleums, painting swastikas on many tombstones. The Government was quick to condemn the act, and the authorities arrested four suspects in the case and charged them with desecrating 60 tombs.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

With the exception of military personnel, all workers are free to form unions. Estimates regarding union membership vary widely. Most union leaders believe it to be about 40 percent of the work force; government figures indicate union membership at 30 percent. Trade unions are independent of the Government or political parties, although most union leaders are affiliated with President Menem's Justicialist party. Unions belong to either the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), the largest union federation; the Movement of Argentine Workers, a dissident group within the CGT; or the independent Congress of Argentine Workers. Unions have the right to strike, and members who participate in strikes are protected by law. The CGT staged general work stoppages in August, September, and December to protest the Government's labor and social policies. During the September stoppage, about 70,000 workers staged a peaceful protest outside Government House in Buenos Aires.

Unions are members of international labor associations and secretariats and participate actively in their programs.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law prohibits antiunion practices, and the Government enforces this prohibition. The trend towards bargaining on a company level, rather than negotiating on a sectoral basis, continued, but the adjustment has not been an easy one for either side. Both the Federal Government and a few highly industrialized provinces are working to create mediation services to promote more effective dispute resolution.

Export processing zones, known as "zonas francas," exist or are planned in several provinces. The same labor laws apply in these zones as in all other parts of the country.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced labor, and there were no reports that it was practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The law prohibits employment of children under 14 years of age, except in rare cases where the Ministry of Education may authorize a child to work as part of a family unit. A small number of children work with their parents harvesting fruits and vegetables. Minors aged 14 to 18 may work in a limited number of job categories but not more than 6 hours a day or 35 hours a week. The law is effectively enforced except in some isolated rural areas where government enforcement capabilities are stretched thin. A report by the International Labor Organization indicated that 140,000 children under 14 years of age (4 percent of the population aged 10 to 14) work.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national monthly minimum wage is $200 (200 pesos), which is not sufficient to sustain an average family of four.

Federal labor law sets standards in the areas of health, safety, and hours. The maximum workday is 8 hours and workweek 48 hours. As part of its economic restructuring program, the Government enacted into law reforms aimed at giving small and medium enterprises greater flexibility in the management of their personnel. The Government is also proposing to modernize the system of workers' compensation.

Occupational health and safety standards are well developed, but federal and provincial governments lack sufficient resources to enforce them fully. In spite of union vigilance, the most egregious cases of inhumane working conditions involve illegal immigrants, who have little opportunity or knowledge to seek legal redress.

Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous or unhealthful work situations, after having gone through a claim procedure, without jeopardy to continued employment. Nevertheless, workers who leave the workplace before it has been proven unsafe run the risk of being fired; in such cases, the worker has the right to judicial appeal, but this process can be very lengthy.

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