April 17, 2014
A message of impunity
A sandwich day between a weekend and a major public holiday is often a good opportunity to sneak in some dubious news and Monday was no exception — ex-president Fernando de la Rúa and all other defendants (even the one pleading guilty) were acquitted in the notorious Senate bribery case dating back to 2000. The tone of the verdict was not so much reasonable doubt as a denial that anything happened. As is standard in legal procedure, the full text of the decision will not be divulged for another few months but the main message from the acquittals has to be impunity.
Whatever was wrong with the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration’s judicial reform package from early this year (and there was a lot wrong with a package prioritizing government needs over the citizenry with the idea of firing judges by simple majority of magistrates elected by popular vote), the De la Rúa trial outcome serves as yet another reminder that judicial reform is urgently needed. Despite the surreptitious timing, the trial outcome was widely expected precisely because of structural flaws in the Argentine justice system. Among them the inordinate length which constantly flirts with the statute of limitations — in this case 13 years, only to find a notorious scandal entirely groundless. And another flaw is to lose sight of the big picture in the course of a trial — rather than the whole being more than the sum of the parts, there is a tendency to confuse the whole with one of the parts so that the entire case stands or falls on that detail. In an equally controversial acquittal last December (the Marita Verón white slavery trial), the judges did not so much find the shady defendants innocent of any involvement in human-trafficking as lacking any specific link to the Marita Verón case and therefore released them. In this latest trial (which centred unduly on De la Rúa’s involvement rather than the Senate bribery as such), almost the entire case was made to hinge on whether a certain Government House meeting took place when the bribery to push labour legislation through a Senate with a Peronist majority could just as easily have occurred without it —not to mention numerous other cases of suspected political corruption.
But all the legal subtleties will be lost on most of the general public, which will pick up the simple message that there is no point in placing corruption on trial in Argentina because the result will be impunity — even if a whistle-blower testifies he personally carried five million pesos in bribes.