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Milani gets promotion despite doubts

Government allies say there is not enough evidence to incriminate César Milani in human rights abuses.
By Luciana Bertoia
Herald Staff

Human rights groups question Army chief’s dictatorship record

Kirchnerite lawmakers claimed victory yesterday after obtaining the necessary votes for the promotion of Army chief César Milani from major-general to lieutenant-general — an achievement that could result in a rift with some human rights organizations, traditionally staunch supporters of the government.

After six hours of debate, the ruling Victory Front (FpV) managed to pass the promotion 39-30. Kirchnerite senators voted for Milani alongside the Santa Fe Federal party, the three legislators from Santiago del Estero, the Justicialist Party from La Pampa province, Corrientes’ Frente de Todos and the Liberal party, also from that province.

As had taken place in July, when the promotion was last debated in the Senate, the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) yesterday challenged Milani’s promotion by including new details linking Milani to the repression unleashed in La Rioja province during the country’s last military dictatorship.

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Senator Miguel Pichetto, the head of the FpV caucus, attacked the human rights group, saying that it was following a political interest by airing its report against Milani now and not having done this before, seemingly widening the gap that has existed between the organization headed by the journalist Horacio Verbitsky and the government.

The Senate was the venue of the crossfire. Opposition lawmakers accused Kirchnerite senators of following the “due obedience” principles when approving Milani’s promotion, despite the fact that he faced accusations of crimes against humanity during the military regime. On the other hand, they said that they were following another principle: the presumption of innocence. They repeated that Milani has not been charged with any crime and that they believed in his innocence, as President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has said.

Kirchnerite lawmakers did not respond to CELS’ opinion. The human rights organization — which is always consulted before a military appointment — emphasized that Milani’s promotion was a political decision rather than a judicial issue.

Once again

On July 22, CELS representatives distributed red folders among senators as they were getting ready to discuss Milani’s promotion. Then, the organization involved Milani in the case of conscript Alberto Agapito Ledo during the so-called Independence Operation in Tucumán province. As the Herald had anticipated, the history repeated itself yesterday.

This time, the Centre released a questionnaire Milani answered as a “statement,” which ended up causing more trouble for the head of the Army. There, he denied having known about crimes committed during the last dictatorship.

Milani also said that the Engineers Battalion Number 141 in La Rioja, where he served, was not a clandestine detention centre, as was reported by survivors. In fact, what CELS showed in its presentation yesterday was that the Battalion was in charge of the repression in La Rioja province.

In 1976, Milani signed a document declaring conscript Ledo a deserter when in fact he had been “disappeared”. To clear his name, Milani said that he was not in the place where Ledo was last seen and that he wrote that minute in Famaillá, Tucumán province. Famaillá was the Independence Operation’s centre, survivor Margarita Cruz explained to the Herald.

Milani is also said to have taken part in the abduction of Ramón Alfredo Olivera and of being linked to the illegal detentions of Plutarco Schaller and his 18-year-old son, Oscar Plutarco Schaller.

Senate: the battlefield

Yesterday’s debate began minutes before 4pm. Outside the Congress, a group of students and members of leftist organizations were expressing their opposition to Milani’s promotion.

The FpV strategy to pass Milani’s promotion was aimed at showing that he had been promoted before and no denunciations had been made against him. The other Kirchnerite hobby-horse was to say that Milani’s rights should be defended and he has to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

“Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri has been prosecuted for beating up poor people and you dare say Milani is not suitable for the post,” Senator Aníbal Fernández (FpV-Buenos Aires province) said.

Opposition lawmakers followed a homogeneous script.

“Milani violated human rights during the dictatorship and during the democratic years, he became rich. He is corrupt,” Morales said, infuriating Senate Majority Leader Pichetto (FpV-Río Negro).

New times?

The human rights movement was one of the Kirchnerite administrations’ main pillars but Milani’s promotion could put an end to that idyllic relationship. The majority of the organizations kept silent, knowing full well what was likely to happen in the Senate. Some, however, including head of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Hebe de Bonafini, backed Milani.

“Kirchnerite lawmakers must not follow the due obedience principle,” 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel yesterday said.

Margarita Cruz, a survivor from the Famaillá’s Escuelita (“Little School”) added: “This is a sad day for me. I don’t want anyone who took part in the Independence Operation to lead the Army.”

@LucianaBertoia

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