Fury in Argentina over ruling that could see human rights abusers walk free

Activists in Argentina have reacted with fury after two supreme court judges appointed by the centre-right government of President Mauricio Macri cast their votes in favour of a ruling that opens the door to the early release of hundreds of convicted human rights abusers.

The court ruling, which was delivered late on Wednesday, reduces the sentence of Luis Muina, who in 2013 was condemned to 13 years in prison for kidnap and torture during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Three of the five judges – including two who were recently appointed by Macri – ruled that time Muina served in prison before conviction should count double towards his final sentence.

The judges based their interpretation on a controversial – and since repealed – law that had not previously been applied to human rights crimes.

Activists warned that the judgment sets a precedent that will enable hundreds of convicted human rights abusers to walk free. “The ruling will result in a cascade of appeals. It will have a domino effect that will lead to the release of most offenders,” said Rodolfo Yanzon, a lawyer representing victims of the dictatorship. “It’s a virtual amnesty.”

As trials in Argentina’s sclerotic justice system often drag on for years, the ruling will almost certainly see the release of offenders as soon as their appeals are heard, Yanzon said.

“Defense lawyers have forseen this [ruling], and they have been dragging out their arguments for up to 18 months,” he said.

Relatives of those tortured or killed under the dictatorship said that the ruling was part of a campaign to downplay the abuses of the military regime.

“They want to erase us from history to create their own history,” said Estela de Carlotto, the 86-year-old head of Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, a group of grandmothers who have spent the last four decades tracing around 500 children born to death camp inmates and then handed over to military families to raise as their own.

Carlotto, perhaps Argentina’s most-respected human rights activist, called the supreme court’s decision “abominable” in statements to the press. “This government is trying to make forgetfulness normal,” the grandmother added.

Relations between the relatives of the “disappeared” and Macri were already strained after the president called into question the number of “desaparecidos” claimed by the human rights groups, suggesting that it could be far lower to the generally accepted figure of 30,000.

The supreme court ruling will benefit 350 condemned former military officers currently serving sentences for crimes against humanity.

The court ruling came days after the Catholic church in Argentina pleaded for “reconciliation” between the military and their victims. Argentina’s bishops, meeting in the district of Pilar outside Buenos Aires on Tuesday, called for “the fraternal coming together of all Argentinians.”

But Argentina’s main human rights groups – including the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo who represent families of the missing – have pointedly refused any such attempts at reconciliation.

Before any fence-mending, they argue, the military need to reveal the fate of their victims.

“It’s absurd,” Carlotto said. “How can you reconcile the parents of the victims with those who made their children and grandchildren disappear – when we still don’t know where they are?”

Taty Almeida of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo said the ruling showed that many in Argentina were choosing a kind of historical amnesia. “This pains us and worries us because they are not respecting our children, it shows they have no memory, that they don’t want to remember,” she said.

Human rights activists believe there is a slim hope that international bodies such as the inter-American court of human right could order Argentina’s supreme court to overturn its ruling.

But that would be a long, laborious process whose outcome the mothers and grandmothers – most of them in their late 80s and early 90s – might not live long enough to see.

The Guardian | Uki Goñi