Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

Official impunity for gross abuses continued to be the leading human rights issue in Argentina. In October 1989, President Carlos Saúl Menem pardoned most military officers who still faced prosecution for violations of human rights in the late 1970s. However, yielding to international and domestic outrage, he exempted the seven men who had been convicted by Argentine courts. They include the five former commanders of the armed forces, among them former Presidents Jorge Videla and Roberto Viola, and the former Police Chiefs of Buenos Aires Province, Gens. Ramón Camps and Pablo O. Ricchieri. Following the initial pardon, President Menem frequently promised to pardon these remaining officers before the end of 1990. On December 29, despite extensive public opposition, he finally pardoned and released all of them, including Carlos Guillermo Suárez Mason, who had been extradicted from the United States to stand trial for his crimes as chief of the Buenos Aires army garrison.

Americas Watch has criticized the presidential pardon of those accused of crimes against humanity during the so-called "dirty war," just as it criticized two laws enacted under former President Raul Alfonsín, known as Punto Final (full stop) and Obediencía Debida (due obedience), which had the effect of limiting prosecutions for these crimes. Such laws sanction impunity, undermine democratic institutions, especially the judiciary, and do a disservice to the victims of abuses. They also violate the UN Convention Against Torture, signed and ratified by Argentina, which makes punishment of torture obligatory.1 That opponents of the military government were pardoned for their politically motivated common crimes does not, in our opinion, affect Argentina's obligations to punish those who violate human rights. By the same token, Americas Watch objects to impunity for members of opposition movements who commit such serious crimes as torture, forced disappearance, and kidnapping.

A more recent example of the impunity of Argentine security forces came in the aftermath of the January 23, 1989 attack on a military barracks in the Buenos Aires suburb of La Tablada by members of an armed opposition group. After a fact-finding mission to Argentina, Americas Watch urged President Alfonsín to guarantee a full investigation into the possible execution of five guerrillas after they had surrendered: Díaz, Provenzano, Ramos, Ruiz and Samojedny. Several survivors say that Provenzano and Samojedny surrendered with them and were taken away by military officers. Díaz and Ruiz were last seen on live television as they were being taken away by officers who had captured them. Ramos bore a striking resemblance to a young man shown in a published photograph in the act of surrendering. The burnt bodies of Provenzano and Ramos were identified, and the government claimed that they were killed in combat. The bodies of Díaz, Ruiz and Samojedny remained unaccounted for, although at least six corpses could not be identified.

Americas Watch expressed concern that the judicial investigation into these apparent murders was frozen. In April and May 1989, military officials provided the names of the officers that had taken Díaz and Ruiz into custody upon their surrender. The officers' efforts to exonerate themselves in statements to the court – they said that they had handed off custody of the two men to a noncommissioned officer who died in combat – though unconvincing, did not lead to charges against them. Since then, Judge Gustavo Larrambebere, who was conducting the investigation, complained that his court's overcrowded docket impeded his progress in the investigation. Military authorities provided unpersuasive explanations for the lack of clarity as to how these men died and generally refused to cooperate with the judicial inquiry. Nor did the Alfonsín and Menem administrations display any interest in such cooperation.

In the view of Americas Watch, President Menem's insistence during 1990 on expanding the number of Supreme Court judges from five to nine contributed to the destruction of an independent judiciary and thus decreased the likelihood that suspected official abuse of this sort would be scrutinized and punished. In a move designed to have a similar effect, the Secretary of Justice ordered federal prosecutors to abstain from legal challenges to the constitutionality of the presidential pardon of members of the military who were being tried for crimes against humanity. Two prosecutors, Hugo Cañón in Bahía Blanca and Aníbal Ibarra in Buenos Aires, disobeyed those instructions. In Bahía Blanca, the Federal Court agreed with Cañón's position and struck down the pardon. The case was pending before the Supreme Court at year's end. The Secretary of Justice initiated disciplinary proceedings against both prosecutors. Ibarra and another Buenos Aires prosecutor, Mariano Ciafardini, were also subjected to a disciplinary inquiry arising out of their investigation into the whereabouts of children who had disappeared with their parents during the so-called "dirty war." The disciplinary proceedings were pending for over a year at the end of 1990. While Americas Watch recognizes the Secretary of Justice's right to sanction prosecutors for misconduct, these sanctions reflected official efforts to avoid a broad and democratic debate over these important human rights issues.

Following the detention in the United States of Carlos Suárez Mason, former commander of the First Army Zone headquarters in Buenos Aires, Americas Watch represented several victims suing the general for damages under the Alien Torts Claims Act (Title 28, US Code, Section 1350). After his extradition to Argentina in late 1988, a public trial was finally scheduled for August 1990 by the Federal Court of Appeals for Buenos Aires. In July 1990, however, the Supreme Court unexpectedly requested all the case documentation, making it impossible for the Court of Appeals to hold the planned trial. President Menem's year-end pardon mooted the issue. Americas Watch had viewed the Suárez Mason trial as extremely important, given that the former general was the only leader of the "dirty war" whose case had still been pending. The Supreme Court intervention was a further indication of the judiciary's compromised independence and its susceptibility to political manipulation.

On February 26, President Menem promulgated a decree authorizing the intervention of the armed forces in situations of social unrest. Americas Watch viewed the decree as a step backward in the struggle to keep the military in their barracks and to consolidate civilian control over the armed forces. Argentina's recent past shows that allowing the military to undertake internal police duties is an invitation to massive violations of fundamental rights.

In October, Vice President Eduardo Duhalde (acting for the President during a trip abroad by Menem) vetoed an act of Congress which exempted from military service sons and brothers of persons officially recognized as "disappeared" during the last military government. Americas Watch considered the veto to be in open contradiction with the argument that President Menem has used to justify the military pardons – that they are necessary for "national reconciliation." Far from accomplishing that goal, the veto showed an unwillingness to make amends to the families of the victims of disappearances for their suffering. The vetoed legislation was to be reconsidered by both Houses of Congress during the special session which began in November. Menem endorsed Duhalde's veto by arguing that to uphold the law would be "to establish a privileged status in the Republic of Argentina." This was a surprising statement. Menem obviously believed that exempting young men from the draft whose families had suffered in the hands of those who would be their superiors was an unconscionable "privilege." But he evidently did not think that exempting proven criminals from any punishment created a privileged class of defendants.

Police violence became a front-page issue in the Argentine press in the latter half of 1990. For the most part, the violence took the form of the police shooting suspects in the streets and in poor neighborhoods, torturing suspected criminals in police stations, and covering up their actions. In September, Luis Patti, the deputy police chief of the city of Pilar, 60 miles north of Buenos Aires, was arrested under charges of having tortured two prisoners with electric shocks. In the following weeks, several community marches were organized to support Patti, who many believed had brought security to Pilar. The conservative media focused on the population's fear of the rising crime rate, tacitly justifying the use of torture in police investigations.

Judge Alberto Borrino had ordered Patti's arrest after a medical examination confirmed signs of torture on the bodies of the two prisoners who were pressing charges. For weeks he was subjected to death threats, and was forced to send his young daughters out of the province. President Menem, the Governor of Buenos Aires and the Mayor of Pilar expressed support for Patti as an "efficient policeman," while adding weak statements about letting justice take its course. Americas Watch viewed these ambiguous statements by high officials as a serious effort to interfere with the independence of the judiciary. In this context, it came as no surprise when a court of appeals ordered the case taken away from Judge Borrino on the grounds that he had prejudged it. The new judge assigned to the case promptly released Patti, ruling that the testimony of the two victims was insufficient evidence to warrant preventive detention. The Supreme Court of the Province of Buenos Aires issued an unusual resolution (acordada) supporting Judge Borrino in no uncertain terms, but since the case was not before the Court, the actions of the lower courts stood.

Judge Borrino's actions had heightened expectations that the judiciary would take action against torturers. The statements of public authorities and the decision of the Court of Appeals will undoubtedly be interpreted by other torturers as a legitimation of the practice.

On September 28, shortly after the Patti episode, Andres Alberto Núñez disappeared from his home. Núñez was picked up by men who showed family members police identification from the Investigations Brigade of La Plata, Buenos Aires. Núñez was reportedly last seen in the Brigade jail by another prisoner and was complaining of pain from a beating he had received. The Investigations Brigade denied having detained him. Americas Watch urged the provincial and national government to ensure that a full investigation was carried out into the disappearance, and that the judge who was investigating the case was provided with the necessary protection.

US Policy

The Bush administration maintained the same posture as its predecessor toward the issue of impunity for human rights abuses. It never expressed support for Argentine society's efforts to come to grips with its painful history. Both President Bush and President Reagan did express support for constitutional rule when it was challenged by rebellious factions of the Argentine army, most recently on December 3, 1990, two days before a scheduled visit to Buenos Aires by President Bush. Even then, however, the US government refused to comment on the pardons issue. This attitude, combined with the noticeable US refusal to offer any support when the trials of human rights violators were under way, conveyed the image that the US government was content to allow egregious violators to escape punishment, even when they achieved that result by threatening and weakening democracy.

This US posture was reaffirmed during President Bush's visit to Argentina in early December. Speaking before the Argentine Congress, Bush proclaimed that "the day of the dictator" was over, but found nothing to say about the impending pardons, issued under pressure from the military that had imposed Argentina's last dictatorship.

The Work of Americas Watch

During the course of 1990, Americas Watch was in regular contact with the Argentine ambassador to the United States, Guido Di Tella, and with the Human Rights Department of the Argentine Foreign Ministry, to express concern over the issues mentioned above. Two Americas Watch representatives also met with President Menem during his visit to Washington in early October. An Americas Watch researcher in Argentina continued this dialogue by meeting in Buenos Aires with Ambassador María Regazzoli, Director of Human Rights at the Foreign Ministry, and with Judge Gustavo Larrambebere to request information on the Tablada investigation.

Considerable press attention in Argentina was given to the meeting with President Menem, in which Americas Watch expressed opposition to the pardon of military officers, as well as its concerns about the lack of progress in the Tablada investigation and the stalled trial of Suárez Mason. Americas Watch again appeared in the Buenos Aires newspapers in November as a result of two letters sent to President Menem setting forth its position on the pardon and expressing concern over the handling of the Patti case.

On several occasions, Americas Watch urged members of the US Congress to convey concern to the Argentine government on these subjects. Many Congressmen wrote to and met with President Menem to register the widespread impression in the United States that his pardons for human rights abuses undermined the rule of law and constituted a retreat from the principle that democratic societies must redress those crimes by restoring truth and justice.

1 See Americas Watch, Truth and Partial Justice in Argentina, 1987.

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