Spain wants to extradite Argentina's former dictators
by Travis Lea
In These Times magazine, May 2000
Ever since Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzon began investigating
crimes against humanity committed by former Chilean dictator Augusto
Pinochet, human rights laws across Latin America have been subject
to new scrutiny.
From 1976 to 1983, a brutal military regime ruled Argentina
with the stated goal of eliminating subversives. Secret forces
kidnapped and imprisoned unionists and leftist intellectuals,
and subjected them to torture, rape and extermination. Human rights
groups estimate that 30,000 people disappeared, some drugged and
tossed from airplanes into the sea on infamous "death flights."
Most of the victims were Argentines, but many foreign nationals
living in Argentina also suffered the wrath of the "Dirty
War." It is for crimes against Spanish citizens living in
Argentina that Garzon is now able to extend the hand of Spanish
justice into the Southern Cone.
In November, Garzon issued extradition requests for nearly
100 military leaders. Then President Carlos Menem rejected them
outright. Argentine politicians and judges claim their justice
system-unlike Chile's-is a strengthening institution, gaining
new respect from the public.
Garzon sent a second round of extradition requests to Argentina's
newly elected president, Fernando De la Rua, in January. This
time, the complaint was more detailed, including specific information
on disappearances and corroborated evidence pertaining to 48 members
of the military regime. De la Rua sent the requests to the courts,
where a federal judge rejected them once again, claiming they
did not meet the requirements of the existing extradition treaty
between Spain and Argentina. Still, De la Rua says he's delighted
that the Spanish judge is carrying out his investigation into
human rights abuses, though he adds, "I understand and share
Chile's claims to sovereignty."
Like many Argentines, De la Rua resents the meddling of an
old colonial power and claims that justice here works. Argentina
is the only country in the region that has carried out trials
against its former military leaders.
Today, nearly a dozen former military leaders are serving
life sentences. But politicians didn't make that happen. Justice
has moved this far thanks to the relentless work of human rights
groups that have pushed for new trials concerning the organized
kidnapping and adoption of babies born to political prisoners
during the Dirty War.
Yet even human rights advocates, like Maria Cristina Caiati
of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, recognize that in
terms of human rights, "the main difference between the two
countries is that in Argentina there has been some degree of justice,
whereas in Chile, no."
Still, Caiati supports Garzon's requests. If South American
dictators are tried in Europe for crimes against humanity, she
says, "it would reinforce a lost concept of judicial independence
in democratic governments and dictatorships."
There are now efforts underway by Italy, Israel and other
countries to prosecute members of the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships.
Since disappeared foreign nationals are still not considered officially
deceased, and since no other country has granted amnesty to Argentina's
ex-dictators, their cases are still considered open. That provides
a legal pathway for those countries to pursue justice.
Meanwhile, Argentine judges slowly continue to investigate
the systematic kidnapping and adoption of babies born to the Dirty
War's victims. Federal Prosecutor Adolfo Bagnasco is heading up
these new investigations, and has faith in his country's judiciary.
"I hope Argentina can send the message to the world that
despite its flaws, my country has a serious and effective justice
system," he says.
But Caiati notes, "In Argentina, even under a constitutional
government, the judiciary has always been susceptible to politics."
International War Crimes