Wed, Jul 20, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Following the faint trail of torture

An Argentine court has dumped laws preventing former state torturers and murderers from being prosecuted, but the latest struggle for the bereaved of the "dirty war" is only beginning


Before they killed him and dumped his body in a still-unknown location, the Argentine security agents responsible for the death of Jose Poblete toyed with him like a cat plays with a mouse. Poblete had lost his legs in an accident, and in torture sessions his captors would dump him out of his wheelchair, mock him as he lay on the floor and call him "Shorty."

For nearly 30 years, Poblete's relatives have been blocked in their efforts to bring his tormentors to justice. But last month, the Argentine Supreme Court, acting in response to a complaint brought on behalf of his family, declared two amnesty laws from the 1980s to be unconstitutional. Now the Poblete case, which has been detailed in testimony from fellow prisoners who survived, along with hundreds more like it, is to be revived.

Yet as the initial euphoria at the revocation of the so-called "full stop" and "due obedience" laws dies down, human-rights groups are realizing that a long and complicated process awaits them. As many as 30,000 people were killed or disappeared during the "dirty war" the Argentine military waged against opponents from 1976 to 1983, in many cases eliminating all records and traces of its actions in an effort to create hurdles for any future complainants.

"We finally have the possibility that those responsible will be judged and sanctioned," said Marta Vazquez, the president of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, perhaps the oldest of the country's main human-rights groups.

"But we haven't gotten to the end of the road, only to the beginning of the end of impunity," she said.

The sheer volume of cases, for instance, promises to be a challenge to a justice system that is notoriously slow and inefficient. Over the last two decades, human-rights groups have continued to work on a handful of so-called mega-cases, gathering evidence and testimony in the hope that they would have an opportunity to go to court some day. But scores of other new cases are expected to be filed.

"In the 1980s, many people were afraid to testify because the viability of democracy was still under discussion and the military was still an important political actor," said Victor Abramovich, a lawyer who is executive director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a leading human-rights group.

"But with this ruling, they no longer have doubts about what is going to happen, and they are coming to us, either to reopen old cases or make new complaints," he said.

There are varying estimates of how many soldiers and police officers could face charges. Some human-rights groups are working with figures as low as 400, but the Justice Ministry talks of just under 1,000, and other human-rights groups calculate that it could be as many as 1,400 officials, less than 10 percent of whom are still on active duty.

"More than 70 percent of the clandestine detention centers were in the hands of the police, but not a single police officer is in custody," said Mabel Gutierrez, a leader of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared.

"Of the 150 who are already being held on charges, all are military officers or gendarmes," he said.

The two amnesty laws, approved by Congress in the mid-1980s after threats of military uprisings and then overturned by a 7 to 1 Supreme Court majority, blocked the prosecution of all but a handful of military officers on the grounds that they were just following orders. The only major exceptions were for the crimes of rape and the theft of babies from women who were political prisoners.

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