Soon after taking office on May 25, 2003, President Néstor Kirchner surprised the world by strongly backing efforts to prosecute military and police officials responsible for grave human rights abuses committed during military rule in Argentina (1976-1983). Kirchner took other positive measures to increase accountability and transparency in government. Police abuses, including torture, continue to be a serious problem, however. Although Argentina enjoys a vibrant press, some journalists investigating corruption and human rights cases face threats or physical aggression.
- Bringing Former Human Rights Violators to Justice
- Police Abuses
- Freedom of Expression
- Key International Actors
Bringing Former Human Rights Violators to Justice
For years, the "full stop" and "due obedience" laws (amnesties introduced in 1986 and 1987) have blocked prosecutions for all abuses committed under military rule except the theft of babies born to mothers held in secret detention. Argentina has also consistently rejected requests from European governments for former military officials to be extradited and prosecuted abroad. During his first months in office, President Kirchner took important steps to reverse these policies. In July, he repealed Decree 1581, issued by the outgoing government of Fernando De la Rúa in December 2001, which had barred Argentine judges from complying with foreign requests for the extradition of "dirty war" suspects. This opened the way for the courts to recommend extraditions.
In August, both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate voted by large majorities to annul the amnesty laws, a proposal firmly backed by Kirchner. Among the cases reopened as a result of the vote involved crimes committed by fifteen former agents of the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), a notorious torture center. They included notorious former naval intelligence agent Alfredo Astiz, who was arrested on September 16.
Whether these legal reforms will permit human rights trials to advance in Argentina, however, depends ultimately on the Supreme Court. Argentina's top judicial body must rule soon on appeals in several cases in which federal appeals courts have deemed the laws unconstitutional. At the end of September 2003, after almost two years' wait, the Supreme Court referred the appeals to a lower appellate court rather than decide the matter itself. The appellate panel is expected to reach a decision in 2004, and the issue will then go before the Supreme Court once again.
Argentine cities, particularly the capital, Buenos Aires, have high rates of criminal violence. The death rate of innocent civilians and of police in shoot-outs between police and suspected criminals is high. In May 2003, the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a nongovernmental human rights group, reported that forty-nine civilians and twenty-eight police died in shoot-outs in Buenos Aires alone during the first four months of the year. Police frequently fail to observe international norms concerning the use of lethal force. Extrajudicial executions and torture by police are also serious problems, although the true number of extrajudicial executions is hard to gauge. Buenos Aires is not the only city affected by police violence and torture. A report issued by the Ombudsman, Eduardo Mondino (Defensor del Pueblo de la Nación) in October 2003 drew attention to frequent reports of torture in the province of Santiago del Estero.
Argentine courts fail to respond adequately to denunciations of torture and the vast majority of cases go unpunished. In response to concerns expressed by human rights groups, the government of Buenos Aires province issued a decree in September 2003 allowing victims to participate in official inquiries of police abuses. However, human rights groups alleged that other measures proposed by the provincial government, such as allowing prosecutors to conduct searches without judicial authorization, undermined constitutional guarantees.
Freedom of Expression
Journalists investigating corruption and human rights abuses in some provinces of Argentina face threats, intimidation, and harassment. These attacks on free expression go almost entirely unpunished. Clara Britos, owner and director of the newspaper La Tapa, in the town of Guernica, Buenos Aires province, has been harassed, followed, and subjected to repeated death threats for her denunciations of corruption and human rights abuse implicating top local government officials. On October 5, 2003, a man walked up behind her in the street and forced her into a car where two others were sitting. The men covered her head and told her: "Mr. Oscar Rodríguez is in charge in Guernica, and everyone does as he says. When are you going to learn, bitch?"
In November 2003, the nongovernmental press freedom group Periodistas denounced what it called a "freedom of expression emergency" in the province of Santiago del Estero. It accused the provincial government of using espionage and surveillance, confiscation, libel actions, and its control of information and advertising to prevent critical reporting by the local press. Local government officials took no action to investigate the allegations and claimed that Periodistas' sources were politically motivated.
Press freedom groups have lobbied Congress to adopt legislation to make defamation of public officials punishable only by civil damages, as opposed to criminal sanctions. A bill to this effect proposed in the Senate in October 2002 is still under debate, but is said to have some firm opponents in Congress.
Key International Actors
The persistence of key European governments, particularly Spain, France, Germany, and Sweden, in pressing requests for the arrest and extradition of Argentines for gross human rights violations committed during military rule has given a powerful boost to domestic efforts to bring the guilty parties to justice. On July 24, 2003, Argentine Federal Judge Rodolfo Canicoba ordered the arrest of thirty-nine former military officers and one civilian accused of the torture and "disappearance" of thousands of Argentines during military rule. The warrants were issued in response to a request by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón.
Kirchner's repeal of Decree 1581 allowed judges for the first time to decide the merits of these extradition requests. Nonetheless, following the annulment of the amnesty laws and the reopening of human rights trials in Argentina, Spain decided in August 2003 not to go forward with the extraditions. A Spanish official stated that his government believed in the "firm will" of the Kirchner government to try the accused in Argentina.
In September 2003, a compelling documentary by journalist Marie-Monique Robin shown on French television revealed that veterans of the French colonial wars in Vietnam and Algeria had trained the Argentine military in counterinsurgency techniques, including kidnappings, torture, and secret executions, before Argentina's "dirty war" began in the early 1970s.
The human rights bodies of the Organization of American States continue to play an important role in safeguarding rights in Argentina. Several important advances in past years have been the result of friendly settlements between the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and successive Argentine governments. In October 2003, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ordered Argentina to pay $400,000 in compensation to the family of seventeen-year-old Walter Bulacio, who was detained during a rock concert in April 1991, and died after torture in a police station. In its unanimous verdict, the court also ordered Argentina to investigate and punish those responsible for the crime, which has remained unpunished to this day.
More on Human Rights in Argentina
HRW World Report 2004
Report, January 26, 2004