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U.S, World Watch South America Handle Past Human Rights Abuses

by Debbie Sharnak, published

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Last week in Argentina, a trial began, charging five former intelligence and military officials with kidnapping, torturing, and killing left-wing activists under the country's military rule which lasted from 1976-1983. Share the news: Tweet

The trial is part of an effort to shed light on a larger military operation, Operation Condor. Condor was a joint effort among South American military regimes during a period that aimed to suppress perceived left-wing opposition in the region.

While the operation involved mainly military officials from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, there is now substantial evidence that the CIA as well as the U.S. state and defense departments were aware of Condor and were often involved in organizational, financial, and technical assistance in the operation.

This specific trial focuses on five men who ran a notorious detention center in Buenos Aires, known as as Automotores Orletti. Aimed at tracking down and silencing dissidents, over 200 people passed through the prison, mainly Uruguayans. Tweet it: Tweet

The case of one couple, Marcelo Gelman and Maria Claudia Garcia, has garnered international attention and will feature prominently in the trial.

Marcelo, the son of the Argentine poet Juan Gelman, was one of those detained in the prison. He was killed, and his wife, who was pregnant at the time, was taken to Uruguay where she too was disappeared. However, not before her child, Macarena, was born in prison.

No one ever heard from or even found María Claudia's body, but her daughter, Macarena, was adopted by a family associated with the Uruguayan Police Force. Macarena’s experience was not an isolated incident; according to human rights groups, as many as five hundred children in Argentina and Uruguay were taken from their imprisoned parents and given to childless military or police couples who the military regimes favored.

After years of searching for his missing granddaughter with the help of the Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, Juan Gelman finally found his granddaughter Macarena in 1999 and brought the case of the disappearance and illegal adoption before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR).

While trials are reopening in Argentina, Uruguay faces a more entrenched battle against impunity. In 1986, during the nation’s transition back to democratic rule, Uruguay passed an amnesty law which protected all those involved in the military regime from prosecution for human rights abuses.

That law was then reaffirmed in two subsequent public referendums. Therefore, Gelman had to take his court to the IACHR.

In 2011, the IACHR found that, despite public reaffirmation of the amnesty, the law was inconsistent with international human rights obligations. The IACHR directed Uruguay to begin to comply with instituting accountability efforts in three key areas to reverse the trend of impunity. Tweet at @IACHR: Tweet

First, it ordered Uruguay to guarantee that the amnesty law did not present further obstacles to the identification and, if applicable, punishment of the responsible parties for crimes against humanity. Second, it directed Uruguay to institute reparations for violations suffered, and lastly, the ruling stated that the small Southern Cone nation needed to make an official apology.

Uruguay has taken important steps to comply with these duties in the past two years. The nation instituted an economic reparations program and President José Mujica, who was a victim of the military government’s repression, made a dramatic public acknowledgement of state responsibility for crimes committed during the dictatorship in March 2012.

However, recent events indicate a step backwards in Uruguay's accountability efforts. Within the past few weeks, two disturbing events occurred that reinforce the continued challenges Uruguay faces in their fight to achieve justice.

First, Judge Mariana Mota, who had long fought for holding military leaders accountable for crimes committed by the military dictatorship, was transferred from her criminal post to a civilian jurisdiction without any explanation, just as trials were slated to begin.

Days later, the Uruguayan Supreme Court ruled that the legislature did not have constitutional authority to pass legislation which would allow trials on abuses by the dictatorship to be reopened, upholding the amnesty law from 1986.

Together these two events indicate a step backwards in Uruguay's attempts to grapple with its legacies and stand in stark contrast to the trials that are moving forward in Argentina.

Public opinion, however, appears to be shifting towards more accountability. The transfer and ruling created an uproar in the nation as Uruguayans stormed the court room to attempt to prevent Mota's transfer and then held a rally outside the Supreme Court.

Many local human rights groups condemned the ruling and on a global level, there is support from the international human rights community.

The Washington Office on Latin America declared that the ruling was a step backwards in accountability while the Center for International Law and Justice (CEJIL) launched a campaign with the U.S.-based New Media Advocacy Project (N-Map) to produce videos about efforts for accountability in the Southern Cone nation.

The United States was intimately involved in the region's Cold War battles and as trials and battles for accountability continue to be waged in the region, the U.S. remains both an interested observer and participant in these conversations.

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