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Courtroom marks human rights fight

Mothers of Plaza de Mayo look on as Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti (centre) inaugurates the Human Rights Courtroom alongside Justices Elena Highton de Nolasco and Juan Carlos Maqueda on Thursday.
By Robert Cox
From Where I Stand
Junta trials are the icon of a struggle that has recently seen more setbacks than victories

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Is it possible to recognize an epic moment in history? I think that it is. The trial of the members of the juntas during the military dictatorship was such a moment.

It was a turning-point in Argentine history that put an end to decades of military domination and marked the seeding of a culture of human rights. And, perhaps more important than anything else, it allowed the people of Argentina to see justice being done.

The admirable Graciela Fernández Meijide, who as secretary of Conadep, the organization that investigated the disappearance of thousands of people we now know were kidnapped, tortured, murdered and their bodies secretly disposed of, has described that moment of awe when the military commanders were ordered to stand when the verdicts were read.

I have watched on film the junta members reluctantly getting to their feet, responding to the command of a civilian. During the trial, prosecutor Julio Strassera, a truly great man, rose to the occasion and delivered a closing argument that deserves a place alongside other flights of oratory that will speak through the ages. There was a very young man at his side, Luis Moreno Ocampo, who summoned almost superhuman energy and concentration to carry out a task that must, at times, have seemed overwhelming. He went on to become the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

I was summoned to give evidence at the trial. As it was for Meijide, the experience of being there was life enhancing. The world has recognized that in bringing to trial the men who commanded the armed forces and who had become accustomed to deciding who would live and who would die, Argentina managed to do what no other nation has, so far, achieved. It was not a trial brought by victors of the vanquished. It was not like the Nuremberg trials, which took place in a defeated, occupied country with foreigners as judges. It was a trial carried out by judges who were fellow citizens of the judged. It was simple, eloquent justice that was not carried out at the point of a gun. It was exemplary justice, which is the foundation for all human rights.

It should be said, of course, that it would probably have been impossible if the Argentine armed forces had not been defeated in that cruelly unnecessary war brought about when the drunken general Leopoldo Galtieri , in cahoots with the vainglorious Navy commanders thought they saw a way to perpetuate themselves in power by appealing to the basest form of nationalism. But it must be remembered that when the dictatorship collapsed, the armed forces still had their fingers on all the triggers of power. The malevolent Navy commander Emilio Massera showed this by parading his insolence and contempt for the judges by wearing his full-dress uniform and delivering a speech justifying his criminality.

President Raúl Alfonsín knew how dangerous it was to place the top Army, Navy and Air Force brass on trial and that it might provoke yet another coup and the early death of the new-born democracy. He did everything he could to persuade the military to apply military justice to their comrades , but they would not do so.

So he went ahead guided by a another brilliant young man, Carlos Nino, who died tragically young but who left a legacy of crystalline philosophic thought and who provided us with a clear understanding of the concept of “radical evil.”

I am not enamoured of ceremonies and, when possible I avoid them, but I would have liked to have been present for the dedication of that serene courtroom where the Trial of the Juntas took place, to be known now as the Human Rights Court. The site is as important to Argentina as Runneymede, where the Magna Carta was signed; as Independence Hall in Philadelphia: the Bastille in Paris; and at some future date, Tiananmen Square.

The newly named Sala de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Courtroom) is where respect for human rights began. It was a wonder that the trial was held at all, because the disgruntled military chiefs were seething. It was a signal achievement that, despite threats to the judges and prosecutors, it concluded majestically with sound sentencing and no revengeful undertones. There was severe criticism at the time from human rights advocates who argued that the sentences for the nine officers, which ranged from life imprisonment for Jorge Videla and Massera to 17 years for Roberto Viola were light. There were four acquittals.

As Supreme Court Justice Lorenzetti pointed out in his speech on Thursday there are ups and downs in advancing a culture of human rights. It is cause for celebration that human rights have been established, in the words of the Chief Justice, as “a state policy.” But in the mid-80s human rights were tender plants. Democracy was severely endangered.

To ward off a military coup and contain the fury of rebellious army commandos, Alfonsín called a halt to trials of subordinates. That was a setback for justice and human rights. Later came what could have been a deathblow to democracy. President Carlos Menem pardoned not only the military, but also the leaders of the guerrilla organizations (known at that time as terrorists and, certainly some of them were such). The radically evil Montonero chief Mario Firmenich, was among those convicted and jailed, but then freed.

I have sustained that President Néstor Kirchner earned his place in the Argentine pantheon by following through on the work of human rights organizations to end the impunity of those responsible for crimes against humanity. It was a ruling by the Supreme Court declaring Menem’s pardon unconstitutional that did the trick, but President Kirchner should not be denied credit. I also admired his gesture in ordering the Army commander to take down portraits of dictators Videla and Reynaldo Bignone from the wall of the Army War College. That was important symbolism because it demonstrated military subservience to elected civilian authority.

Since then, we have had more setbacks for human rights. The obnoxious Hebe de Bonafini, dictator of the authoritarian wing of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo movement has formed an alliance with General César Milani, who was appointed Army chief by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. That was a slap in the face for human rights because Milani is not only accused of participating in the “disappearance” of a conscript under his command, but is also suspected of illicit enrichment.

As for the president herself, apart from appointing Milani to the top post in the military, she has tainted whatever human rights laurels she had by running an underground war against the press, the judiciary, the Supreme Court and by presiding over a decidedly anti-democratic administration.

Her non-attendance at the Supreme Court on Thursday, while not surprising, was further confirmation of her lack of commitment to human rights.

A significant attendee at the ceremony was embattled Judge Ariel Lijo, who has summoned Vice-President Amado Boudou to appear before him to answer charges of corruption. His presence may indicate that the subterranean war between the administration and the judiciary, with the Supreme Court in the crossfire, may be coming out into the open.

bobc59@gmail.com

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