(IPS) – Thirty-four years after Argentina’s return to democracy, more than 500 cases involving human rights abuses committed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship are making their way through the courts. This high number not only shows that the process of truth and justice is ongoing, but also reflects the delays and the slow process of justice.

Outside the courtroom in the city of Buenos Aires, the relatives of victims of the dictatorship and human rights activists watched on a big screen the late November sentencing in the trial for the crimes committed during the de facto regime at the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA). In the trial, which lasted five years, 29 people were sentenced to life imprisonment. Credit: Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS)

Since the human rights trials got underway again in 2003, after amnesty laws were overturned, 200 sentences have been handed down, but 140 of them have been appealed.

This was revealed by a December 2017 report by the Office of the Prosecutor for Crimes against Humanity, which stated that 856 people have been convicted and 110 acquitted.

At the same time, there are another 393 ongoing cases, but 247 are still in the initial stage of investigation of the judicial process, which precedes the oral and public trial.

“The trials for the crimes committed in Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship have been an example for all of humanity, because there has no been no other similar case in the world. And it is very positive that the State is transmitting today the message that the trials are continuing,” Santiago Cantón, former executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), told IPS.

“However, the delays are serious, because we are talking about defendants who in most cases are over 80 years old,” said Canton, currently Secretary of Human Rights of the province of Buenos Aires, the country’s largest and most populous.

“It is important for everyone for the trials to be completed: so that the accused do not die surrounded by a mantle of doubt, and so that the victims and society as a whole see justice done,” he added.

Since President Mauricio Macri took office in December 2015, “the dismemberment or cutting of research areas and the emptying of prosecutors’ offices dedicated to these cases has been noted with concern.” — Daniel Feierstein

The dictatorship was responsible for a criminal plan that included the installation of hundreds of clandestine detention, torture and extermination centres throughout the country. According to human rights organisations, 30,000 people were “disappeared” and killed.

After the return to democracy, then president Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989) promoted the investigation and punishment of crimes. The culminating point was the famous trial of the military junta members, which convicted nine senior armed forces officers.

Thus, in 1985, former General Jorge Videla and former Admiral Emilio Massera, leading figures of the first stage of the dictatorship, the time of the most brutal repression, were sentenced to life in prison.

However, under pressure from the military, Congress passed the so-called Full Stop and Due Obedience laws in 1986 and 1987, which effectively put a stop to prosecution of rights abuses committed during the dictatorship. The circle was closed by then president Carlos Menem (1989-1999), who in 1990 pardoned Videla, Massera and the rest of the imprisoned junta members.

Not until 2001 did a judge declare the two laws unconstitutional, on the argument that crimes against humanity are not subject to amnesties.

That decision marked a watershed, reaffirmed in September 2003, when Congress, at the behest of then President Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), revoked the amnesty laws.

The prosecution of “Dirty War” crimes was then resumed and the last hurdle was removed in 2005, when the Supreme Court ruled that no statute of limitations or pardon applied to crimes against humanity.

“It is very important that since 2003, 200 trials have been carried out, thanks to the effort and commitment of victims and relatives,” said Luz Palmás Zaldúa, a lawyer with the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), the organisation that pushed for the first declaration that the amnesty laws were unconstitutional, in 2001.

Palmás Zaldúa mentioned some trials in particular, such as the one involving Operation Condor, which ended in 2016 with 15 convictions, “in which it was proven that there was a plan of political repression implemented by the dictatorships in the Southern Cone of South America.”

He also highlights the trials involving abuses at the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), the dictatorship’s largest detention and torture centre, which ended last November with life sentences for 29 people.

“The so-called death flights, where the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, for example, were thrown (alive) into the River Plate, were proven in those trials,” Palmás Zaldúa told IPS.

The lawyer, however, warned that the process of justice and memory “faces a number of difficulties, which are the responsibility of the three branches of the State.”

CELS was one of the 13 Argentine human rights organisations that denounced, in an October 2017 hearing before the IACHR in Montevideo, that the Argentine government had undermined or dismantled official bodies dedicated to reviewing dictatorship-era documents to provide evidence in the courts.

They also complained that Congress did not put into operation the bicameral commission that was to investigate economic complicities with the dictatorship, created by law in November 2015.

Since President Mauricio Macri took office in December 2015, “the dismemberment or cutting of research areas and the emptying of prosecutors’ offices dedicated to these cases has been noted with concern,” sociologist and researcher Daniel Feierstein told IPS.

In addition, “it would appear that a new judicial climate has been created which has led many courts to easily grant house arrest to those guilty of genocide, significantly increase the number of acquittals, and reject preventive detention at a time when its use is no the rise for less serious crimes,” added Feierstein.

“So the outlook is contradictory, with a process that seems to be ongoing but under changing conditions, which generate great uncertainty,” he said.

The report by the Public Prosecutor’s Office states that of the 2,979 people charged since the cases were resumed in 2003, 1,038 were detained, 1,305 were released, 37 went on the run, and 599 died – 100 after receiving a sentence and 499 while still awaiting sentencing.

A significant fact is that more than half of the prisoners (549) enjoy the benefit of house arrest, which in some cases has aroused strong social condemnation.

“Even if they go home, they are condemned by history, by society and in some cases even by their own families,” stressed Norma Ríos, leader of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH), in a dialogue with IPS.

“A few years ago, we would never have imagined all this. And perhaps the most important thing is that it has been broadly proven that we were not lying when we denounced the crimes committed by the dictatorship,” she added.