40 years after the coup: Interview with Juan Carlos Capurro, FIDH Vice President

Press release
en es fr

On the 40th anniversary of the coup d’état in Argentina, Juan Carlos Capurro, Vice President of FIDH and director of the Legal Action Committee – Argentina, responds to three questions.

1. What are your feelings today, 40 years after the coup d’état in Argentina?

Today we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the coup that led to a military dictatorship that lasted from 1976 to 1983.

Argentina’s military dictatorship was one of the bloodiest of the past century and left over 30,000 people murdered, arbitrarily arrested and tortured, or missing. Among the victims were students, trade unionists, attorneys, and journalists.

The Argentine State is dealing with the debt to the victims left by the massive repression of the dictatorship; a debt that, in spite of advances in recent years, has not yet been settled. Although it is true that the process of justice for crimes against humanity has overcome some of the hurdles it has faced, and has consolidated important achievements, there is still much to do. The State must open the archives of the dictatorship years to reveal the fate of missing persons and abducted babies.

It is important to state that the legitimate process of memory, truth, and justice has been established little by little thanks to the tenacious mobilisation of the Argentinian people. This tenaciousness forced a revision of a State policy which had denied rights through the laws of due obedience and full stop, which were ultimately revoked.

The failure of the dictatorship established in 1976 explains this long, firm duration of democratic freedoms. Forty years of genocide used to defend a fruitless economic plan has been exposed. The disrepute of the civilian-military coup resulted from a clear understanding of its true aims, economic in nature, and the crimes committed in trying to impose them.

2. What is the situation of the victims? Have they had access to justice and reparations?

Victims have gained access to justice after a long fight. The amnesty laws - “full stop” of 1986 and “due obedience” of 1987 - were finally declared unconstitutional in 2005. The breakthrough in the process of memory, truth and justice was brought about through public mobilisation, victims’ associations, and human rights organisations.

Today the process of justice that seeks to determine liability for the crimes of lèse humanité committed during the dictatorship is showing progress.

The decision of the Argentine judiciary in October 2011 was an historic ruling for the victims of the Argentinian military dictatorship. The Argentinian courts concluded that crimes of lèse humanité were committed in the clandestine detention centre of the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada — ESMA (Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics), and they declared 16 officials - including the principal ESMA directors, such as Alfredo Astiz - criminally liable, and sentenced them to between 18 years and life imprisonment.

As of today, 293 of the 615 persons sentenced for crimes of lèse humanité are in prison and 193 are under house arrest. Similarly, of the 939 persons prosecuted for crimes of lèse humanité, 615 have been sentenced and 402 have passed away during the proceedings. It should be stressed that 2,489 of the persons charged with crimes of lèse humanité were with the armed forces or security police. Only 344 were civilians.

Furthermore, 32% of the persons prosecuted for lèse humanité were charged with unlawful detention, 26% with torture, and 16% with homicide.

For more statistics on the trials related to the Argentinian military dictatorship, see the CELS blog (ES).

One of the major breakthroughs has to do with the prosecution of crimes of sexual violence. Indeed, sexual violence was one of the forms of repression used by the dictatorial regime and was considered part of the extermination plan designed by the armed forces. Progress in these cases has been especially good, with sentencing for sexual violence as a specific crime and not as part of torture. For example, the Sambuelli case in September 2013 resulted in the sentencing of five persons for the crime of sexual assault or rape, thus singling out sexual violence as an independent, specific crime and not falling under the crime of torture. The act of not differentiating sexual violence from torture precludes the possibility of considering the particular nature of the assault, which is aimed at destroying kidnapped persons psychologically and morally.

3. What is the human rights situation in Argentina 40 years later?

There have been important breakthroughs. Limits have been placed on people related to the coup, who are still living among us and in many cases are still in positions of public service, particularly in the armed forces and the security police. The new government has openly expressed its disregard for human rights. This trend is articulated in a policy of increasing limitations on democratic freedoms, which began with the previous government (Project X for espionage aimed at the opposition; repression of protests; appointment of General Milani, charged with kidnapping under the dictatorship). Within a few months after the new government took over, there has been an increasing wave of threats, assault and repression of protests, which the government supports through either acts or omission. Unfortunately, we are starting to see individuals in the opposition being “monitored” from unidentified cars, or cases of doubtful “ordinary” crimes in which the victims are close family members of dissident leaders. This should sound the alarm about the possible drift of President Macri’s new government.

The work of memory, truth and justice has not concluded and much is yet to be done to respond to the families of victims. Advances in court proceedings against the perpetrators of the crimes of the military dictatorship must contribute to the work of memory and to ensure that human rights violations are not repeated in the country. The greatest guarantee of this effort focuses on continued public demonstrations, on the families of victims of the past, and on human rights organisations defending the exercise of freedom today.

Read more