September 18, 2014
‘Genetic Bank director will lose her position’
Victor Penchaszadeh, an expert praised by Estela Carlotto, talks to the Herald
Born: April 6, 1942
Hobbies: listening to classical music, riding his bicycle
Last book read: El hombre que amaba a los perros by Leonardo Padura
Newspapers: Página/12 and La Nación
Education: University of Buenos Aires (medicine), Ricardo Gutierrez Children’s Hospital of Buenos Aires (pediatrics), John Hopkins University (public health and genetics), Columbia University (bioethics)
Occupation: Professor of Genetics, Bioethics and Public health at the National University of La Matanza, Advisor to the Ministry of Science and Technology on Argentina’s National Bank of Genetic Data.
When Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo head Estela Barnes de Carlotto announced the recovery of her grandson, she thanked one scientist by name: Víctor Penchaszadeh. This famed geneticist, tall and white-haired, with reading glasses, could not be mistaken for anything else but an academic when he speaks about his two passions —science and human rights.
The professor, who was forced into exile in the 1970s, was a key figure in creating the “grandparentage index” that has been fundamental in helping to recover grandchildren who were snatched away by the military during the country’s last dictatorship.
After 30 years abroad, Penchaszadeh returned to Buenos Aires in 2007 as advisor to the World Health Organization and later joined the National University of La Matanza as a professor of genetics, bioethics and public health. In 2013 he was asked to advise the Ministry of Science and Technology to help the National Bank of Genetic Data, that holds the information on grandparents of children of disappeared that were appropriated by persons linked to the dictatorship, comply with the law.
In an interview with the Herald that took place in his modern Palermo duplex apartment, Penchaszadeh spoke about his relationship with the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and his hopes for the future of the human rights movement.
How did you feel when you heard the news that Estela Barnes de Carlotto had found her grandson?
It was an incredible sense of joy. I got a call from the Ministry of Science while I was returning from a meeting at the university. And when I arrived at the Grandmothers headquarters, everyone was so happy. I was very moved...
What do you think about the way in which Guido’s name was leaked to the press?
I don’t know how it happened —apparently it was leaked by the court that handled the case. The person who leaked it committed a very unethical act. You can’t do that. The Grandmothers have always been careful in respecting the right of privacy, and have always given time for the grandchild to decide when their identity should be publically released. It’s an embarrassment.
Estela Barnes de Carlotto praised you publicly as having been instrumental in finding her grandson. What has your relationship with Grandmother of Plaza de Mayo been like?
Estela praise’s was of general gratitude toward the scientific community that helped the Grandmothers since its inception. My relationship with the Grandmothers has been excellent since I met them for the first time in New York City in 1982. They were referred by a human rights activist living in Washington DC and as soon as they called me I ran to their hotel on Lexington Avenue. We talked for hours about their plight and how science could contribute to the identification of their appropriated grandchildren. The next day we visited geneticist Fred Allen from the New York Blood Center. And that is where it all began.
What was the significance of the National Commission for the Right to Identity (Conadi) created by the then President Carlos Menem in 1992?
The Conadi is a national agency at the Ministry of Justice that has been crucial for the search and identification of grandchildren because it had the single purpose of seeking evidence of identity. Many youths who were identified as grandchildren of the Grandmothers went first through Conadi, which sent them for DNA testing at the National Bank of Genetic Data.
Can you tell me about the 2009 reform of the Genetic bank?
The Genetic bank was created in 1987 by law of Congress. Many of its stipulations became obsolete after 22 years. While it was created as a national institution under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, when the city of Buenos Aires became autonomous it had to share dependency from two different administrative jurisdictions (national and city governments), which eventually turned dysfunctional. Furthermore, the 1987 law established details about location, requirements to be its director and the lab techniques that became obsolete too. Finally, its mission statement allowed that in addition to work towards identification of children of the disappeared appropriated by the dictatorship, it could also do testing in civil litigations of identity. This lead to an anomalous situation in which most resources of the Bank were dedicated to civil litigation cases while cases of crimes against humanity had to wait. The modification of the law in 2009 was geared to fix the anomalies just mentioned.
How would it do so?
In the first place, it changed the jurisdiction of the Bank to the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is more appropriate as regards security and functional issues. Secondly, it requires that the director and under-directors be chosen by an independent jury of experts based on the analysis of qualifications of applicants and not by ‘ladder climbing.’ Thirdly, it establishes that the mission of the Bank is the identification of victims of forced disappearence and suppression of identity (crimes against humanity) that occurred in the last dictatorship. Identification in cases of civil litigation are now outside the mission of the Bank and are being taken-up by forensic genetic labs that are being created in most provinces. A controversial point of the 2009 law, and one I don’t know its reasoning, is that it puts a time limit on the crimes against humanity cases it is meant to investigate, namely up to December 8, 1983, when democracy returned.
Why are the current Bank director María Belén Rodríguez Cardozo and some human rights leaders opposed to the changes?
This is something you should asked them. The fact is that the current director will lose her position because she did not apply to be director according to the law. The group of human rights activists who oppose the changes are a small minority and some have expressed unfounded fears that samples and information stored at the Bank may be lost. However, the Ministry of Science has guaranteed that the move will happen with the highest standards of security. All current employees of the city have the option to move with the bank to its next location.
What do you think about the tenure of Director Cardozo as head of the bank?
The personnel of the Bank are highly dedicated professionals whose work has led to the recovery of 114 grandchildrens' identities. The current director is a respected forensic geneticist and it is unfortunate that she decided not to apply to become director of the bank in compliance with the law. We are certain that under the terms of the law, the work of the Bank will keep and even improve its standards of quality and become more transparent, accountable and democratic.
How would you compare the way President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor Néstor Kirchner dealt with the genetic bank when compared with past governments?
There has been a big difference, when (late former president) Néstor Kirchner formed his administration’s human rights policy, he gave strong attention to demands of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo to assure the work of the Genetic bank. In contrast with previous administrations, the Bank was assured all needed resources. The current president has followed the same direction.
How has society’s perception of the work done by the Grandmothers changed over the years?
There was a period after the return of democracy, in which the quest of the Grandmothers was controversial, many people were against interfering in the lives of the families who had appropriated children. News outlets like Clarín and La Nación would say things like, ‘why mess with the kids If they are doing well...,’ ‘leave them alone...,’ arguing unfoundedly that identification and restitution of these children could create a ‘second trauma’ after the original separation from the mother. Thus, the grandmothers needed much more support from science. Personal identity and truth are fundamental values for everyone. The whole world recognizes this. My role throughout the decades has been to give them moral and scientific support and to help them recover their robbed grandchildren.
What do you think of the government’s human rights policy?
I think they have done a good job in the prosecution of crimes against humanity, although in Argentina there are many other human rights problems that still need to be addressed, including rights to land by native groups, prison conditions and the right to health, to name a few.