Argentina Revives Human Rights Trials

Argentine courts are once again confronting the horrors of a brutal Cold War regime that executed thousands of dissenters. But prosecutors face many obstacles in pursuing crimes that are three decades old.

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Now Argentina's president, Nestor Kirchner, has brought up some old ghosts by telling the country's courts speed up the human rights trials.

NPR South America correspondent Julie McCarthy has more today. And we should warn you there is some graphic testimony in this report.

JULIE MCCARTHY: President Kirchner recently marked the 31st anniversary of the coup that brought Argentina's dictatorship to power with a stern plea to the country's courts: Bring to justice those guilty of crimes committed during the junta that ruled from 1976 to 1983. Kirchner sharply criticized judges for being slow.

President NESTOR KIRCHNER (Argentina): (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Enough. Please, enough. Trial and punishment. We need trials speeded up, he said, and went on. We're not meddling in the powers of the court. We are asking the courts to do their job and that justice, which our brothers, comrades and friends did not receive be rendered now.

Argentina's junta extinguished the country's left-wing guerillas, some of whom were regarded as terrorists, and also suppressed student activists, trade unionists and intellectuals. It claimed 13,900 victims by official count. Human rights groups and President Kirchner himself say the dead and disappeared are more like 30,000.

Retired judge Andres D'Alessio sat on the panel of jurists that tried the leaders of the junta in a yearlong proceeding that began in 1984, just after the dictatorship fell.

Mr. ANDRES D'ALESSIO (Argentina): Principally, there was kidnap, torture, killing. There were some cases of rape. You could do anything with a woman to torture her, but you couldn't do it for your own pleasure. For example, you could do it with a stick, very, very sadistic.

MCCARTHY: The trial, unprecedented for Latin America then, heard 600 hours of testimony. There was evidence of mass graves and a sharp increase in the number of cremations at the main cemetery in Buenos Aires.

Mr. D'ALESSIO: Because they were disposing the corpses of these people. We pass from 300 to 3,000.

MCCARTHY: That's just systematic killing.

Mr. D'ALESSIO: Yes, it was systematic.

MCCARTHY: The junta killed young mothers gave their infants away or sold them, and pushed other victims from airplanes into the Atlantic. Judge D'Alessio recalls this exchange with defendant Emilio Massera, the disgraced commander of the navy, whom he asked…

Mr. D'ALESSIO: Can you explain why so many corpses have appeared in the shores. He said, no I cannot, judge, because I'm not an expert in my maritime currents.

MCCARTHY: A maritime currents.

Mr. D'ALESSIO: That's what he said.

MCCARTHY: Did they tell the truth?

Mr. D'ALESSIO: No, no, no, no. They said no, no, nothing had happened, that no one was kidnapped. They deny it absolutely.

MCCARTHY: Five of nine junta leaders were found guilty. Although they were quickly pardoned by a Democratic government fearing a revolt in the military, their trials were a prologue for the ones Argentina has begun now against those who carried out the junta's orders. In 2005, the country's supreme court made the new prosecutions possible by sweeping aside immunity laws that had protected perpetrators.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: But the door to Argentina's dark past likely would have remained shut but for the efforts of the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. In Buenos Aires's leafy main square, thousands joined them two weeks ago chanting the people embrace you. Their trademark white kerchiefs bobbing amid the crowd, the mothers held aloft two huge scrolls of old photographs. The young faces of the disappeared stretched nearly the length of two football fields.

President Kirchner said of the women and their long search for the truth that they have defeated oblivion. But with each passing year, memories fade and leads grow cold. Death claims perpetrators before justice does.

The disappearance six months ago of a torture victim and key trial witness also demonstrates how difficult reactivating prosecutions can be. Julio Jorge Lopez went missing on the eve that his torturer, a former police commissioner, was convicted of crimes against humanity and jailed for life.

Human rights attorney Ricardo Monarsans(ph).

Mr. RICARDO MONARSANS (Attorney): (Through translator) It is highly likely that the disappearance of Lopez has been the way to induce terror among witnesses.

MCCARTHY: But Argentine Nobel Peace Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel says his country must persevere with prosecutions.

Mr. ADOLFO PEREZ ESQUIVEL (Recipient of 1980 Nobel Peace Prize): (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: We are looking for truth and justice. Trials are just beginning, he says, and we're demanding that the government speed them up. Otherwise, they won't end until the year 2100, and this must never happened again.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Buenos Aires.

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