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Murder of Human Rights Witness Sparks Fears


The recent murder of Silvia Suppo, a key witness in a human rights trial on crimes committed during the Argentine dictatorship, has sparked fears for the safety of witnesses who testify publicly in the cases. Suppo, a torture survivor, was stabbed to death on March 29 at her crafts shop in the province of Santa Fe in an alleged robbery. In 2009, Suppo testified in a human rights trial against a former judge for his role in abuses during the dictatorship. Human Rights groups suspect that Suppo was killed to send a message to those still willing to testify as human rights trials progress.

2010 has been a year of reckoning with the past in Argentina. Close to two dozen high-profile military officers have been prosecuted for torture, kidnapping, murder, and disappearances. Although justice for crimes dating back to 1976 has taken a slow course in the South American nation, Argentina has finally taken the lead in breaking the impunity that shielded members of violent dictatorships from prosecution for human rights abuses.

The human rights proceedings have also fueled a campaign by supporters of the dictatorship, who openly defend the military’s actions during the 1976-1983 military junta that disappeared more than 30,000 people.

Human rights activists have reported threats against torture survivors, witnesses scheduled to testify in the upcoming trials, and judges and prosecutors since the trials were reopened in 2005. The concern for witness safety culminated in 2006 with the disappearance of Julio Lopez, a key prosecution witness. Lopez disappeared three years ago after testifying in the case of a police chief who was convicted for crimes against humanity and genocide. He is presumed dead and was scheduled to testify in more trials. More than 10 high-profile trials are underway to prosecute dozens of military, police, and civilians accused of participating in the systematic plan to disappear so-called "dissidents." Julio Lopez and Silvia Suppo would have testified in trials currently taking place in La Plata, Lopez’s hometown, and in Santa Fe, Suppo’s home province. Instead, their absence in the courtroom sends painful memories of repression with impunity and fears about the possibility of violent repercussions against survivors and witnesses participating in the human rights trials. However, witnesses, relatives of victims, and human rights activists want the trials to speed up and for the state to dismantle judicial roadblocks tying up the proceedings.

Silvia Suppo

Santa Fe held its first human rights trial, involving a judge and five others, in 2009. Víctor Brusa and former police officers Héctor Colombini, Juan Calixto Perizotti, María Eva Aebi, Mario Facino, and Eduardo Ramos were sentenced to 18-23 years in prison for crimes against humanity committed during Argentina’s military dictatorship.

Silvia Suppo was detained at the age of 17 by a commando group in Santa Fe. She was taken to Police Precinct Number 4, where she was raped repeatedly. When it was discovered that Suppo was pregnant, Juan Calixto Perizotti and his secretary María Eva Aebi transferred her to another clandestine detention center for an abortion. It was there Suppo met Patricia Isasa, a 16-year-old also detained in Santa Fe. "Silvia spoke of sexual violence and rape as a method of torture, a systematic practice and a separate crime against women," said Patricia Isasa, a fellow torture survivor, in an interview with national daily Pagina 12.

Suppo, 51 years old, provided key testimony in the trial against the judge and police. The military protected their identities by forcing detainees to wear hoods or blindfolds. While she was at the La Casita clandestine detention center undergoing an abortion, Suppo was able to see her perpetrators’ faces when they removed her blindfold.

Since 1997, Patricia Isasa gathered exhaustive documentation to put her perpetrators behind bars. However, the so-called "full stop" and "due obedience" laws implemented in the early 90s foreclosed any successful prosecution of ex-military leaders for human rights crimes by the courts. In 2005 the Supreme Court struck down amnesty laws that protected former military officers who served during the dictatorship.

Many of those prosecuted since the amnesty laws were removed not only enjoyed impunity from prosecution for their crimes, they often held prominent government positions, even in the justice system. Brusa climbed the ranks of the judicial hierarchy to hold the post of federal judge. Following torture sessions, 18 torture survivors testified that Brusa participated directly in interrogations and forced detainees to sign confessions by threatening to send them back to the torture room if they didn’t confess to participating in armed struggle, for example.

Fasino served as mayor of San José del Rincón, Santa Fe in the 90s. Ramos was appointed secretary of culture in Santa Fe. Colombini was in charge of the illicit drugs division in the police force. "The misfortune of failing to put these people on trial not only resulted in impunity, rather they were rewarded for their crimes," said Isasa in an interview in 2006.

In 2006, Patricia Isasa received a series of disturbing phone calls on her cell phone and at her home. She entered a witness protection program and left the country for several months, hoping the trial would begin soon. Following Suppo’s murder, Isasa once again has entered a witness protection program.

Police detained two men in the murder of Suppo, however, human rights witnesses and relatives have pushed for authorities to continue to investigate the case. Isasa and Suppo’s relatives have expressed doubts that the crime was a simple robbery given the profile of the victim and the circumstances of Suppo’s death. The crime occurred in the morning hours at Suppo’s shop and violent robberies are uncommon for the town of Rafaela, where the victim was killed. More than 1,500 people marched to the local court house to demand that authorities continue with the investigation.

Like many other witnesses in the proceedings for crimes against humanity, Suppo had received threats. Nearly two years ago, when opening proceedings began in the Judge Brusa trial, two men stood at the entrance of her shop to intimidate her. Suppo unrelentingly gave her testimony of the terror she endured and refused to enter a witness protection program.

Julio Lopez and the Paradigm of Forced Disappearances

Julio Lopez went missing three years ago on September 18, 2006 in his hometown of La Plata, Argentina. However, September 18, 2006 was the second time the father, construction worker, activist, and torture survivor was disappeared. Julio Lopez’s first forced disappearance occurred during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, when he was kidnapped from his home during the night by a commando group, taken to a secret detention center, and tortured in several different police barracks that served as a clandestine network for disappearing thousands. During his 1976 kidnapping and torture sessions he was tortured repeatedly with a Picana [electric prod]. It was there he met Miguel Etchecolatz, the police chief who coordinated kidnappings and torture in clandestine detention centers in La Plata, 30 miles from Buenos Aires.

Lopez’s testimony during a historic human rights trial in 2006 led to Etchecolatz’s conviction. The police chief was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide during the dictatorship. Julio Lopez missed seeing the face of his torturer, Etchecolatz, dressed in police clothing and a bullet-proof vest, kissing a rosary as he was sentenced to life in prison. In what many consider an ominous sign of new cycles of impunity, Lopez—at age 77—had been disappeared for the second time in his life before learning the results of the trial he had worked so hard and risked so much to bring about.

Nearly four years after his disappearance, relatives and fellow activists have no information as to Lopez’s whereabouts. Lopez would have testified in another high-profile trial this year. The trial involves the prosecution of 14 police officers and security guards who worked at the prison, "Penal 8," which the courts described as a "regimen of terror and extermination." When the trial opened, the seat in the front row of the courtroom reserved for Lopez was empty. A white handkerchief lay on the seat to commemorate the missing witness.

Lopez’s disappearance has re-opened painful wounds. Little hope remains that Lopez will be found alive. Investigations have provided no answer as to where Lopez could be located, alive or dead. "Three years after the disappearance of Julio Lopez, the investigation into his whereabouts is practically paralyzed," said Myriam Bergman, prosecuting attorney who represented Lopez during the trial against Etchecolatz. "We feel as if there’s been an absolute negation of justice." The only suspect police questioned, Osvaldo Falcone, was Etchecolatz’s personal physician who visited the convicted torturer in jail just days before Lopez went missing.

Human rights groups presented a formal letter to the Supreme Court accusing authorities of delaying the investigation into Lopez’s forced disappearance. Groups suspect police and court authorities with ties to officials who participated in rights abuses have disrupted the investigation into Lopez’s disappearance.

Unrepentant Military

Faces of the vicitims.

The military, police, and civilians charged with an array of counts of kidnapping, torture, and murder have been escorted into courtrooms handcuffed to face the accusations. Defense lawyers have relentlessly requested sick leave for the accused and tried to hold up proceedings with last-minute changes in legal representatives.

Unrepentant, many military officers have testified in their defense, refused to provide information, and discarded proposals to confess. Some openly defend their actions as following military orders to "fight a war against subversion." For the first time this year, Rafael Videla appeared in court in March. Hundreds of police protected the former dictator from news cameras as he was hurriedly shuttled in and out of the courtroom. In a shocking incident, a police officer pointed a gun at a photographer trying to take a photo of Videla, who led the coup and the plan to forcefully disappear 30,000 people. Videla will have to take the stand again in another mega-trial in the province of Cordoba, along with 24 others charged with crimes against humanity in the murder of 32 victims.

The crimes committed are unimaginable for their cruelty, and the terror and pain that was inflicted. The ESMA—Navy Mechanics School, served as the military’s largest clandestine detention center and has been compared to Auschwitz for the nature of the abuses and thousands of people who perished within the military barracks. Alfredo Astiz, also known as the "blonde angel of death" is one of the 17 former ESMA officers charged with crimes against humanity in the ESMA. The day he was to answer to allegations, he dressed in jeans and a ratty navy blue sweater. He didn’t deny the crimes he is charged with. He didn’t show repentance. He didn’t ask for forgiveness. He admitted to the crimes, justifying his acts as the need to "exterminate terrorists," and stating that the "armed forces acted in defense of the nation."

The junta devised a complex system of hundreds of clandestine detention centers, 370 according to the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, to systematically torture and disappear anyone considered a dissident. Among the doleful roll call of the list of disappeared included high school students, professors, artists, unionists, university students, workers, priests, nuns, social workers, activists, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, and compañeros. Given the magnitude of disappearances and the number of torture centers, thousands of individuals were involved, said Estella Carlotta, president of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. On the 34th anniversary of the nation’s bloody military dictatorship, tens of thousands flooded into the historic Plaza de Mayo for the commemoration with cries of nunca más—"never again."

Brave Witnesses

Jose Shulman, a survivor from the Brusa detention center in Santa Fe, said that despite the threats and disappearance of Lopez, none of the 2,500 witnesses have withdrawn their testimony or refused to testify in the human rights trials. He interpreted the threats as a "sign that those dictatorship supporters feel weak from the judicial defeat that they are now facing."

In the same courtroom where Astiz defended his actions, the sister of French nun Alice Domon, who was disappeared in a raid led by Astiz, testified. The first witness in the trial, Gabrielle Domon affirmed that her sister "was not a terrorist" and that she hoped that as a result of the ESMA trial relatives of victims "will get the truth and some answers to our questions."

Many witnesses include children of the disappeared, who are now in their 30s and 40s. Along with the grandmothers and grandfathers who have lived to see the trials, they are testifying on how the absence of mothers and fathers who were disappeared affected their lives. Ramiro Poce’s father, Ricardo Cesar Poce, was disappeared in 1978. "It’s important that the trials are done by circuits of clandestine detention centers to avoid witnesses having to testify repeatedly in separate trials on a case by case basis," said Poce on the opening day of the Atlético, Banco, and Olimpo trial, which will examine the crimes committed at three separate secret detention sites where thousands were tortured and disappeared.

Although the trials have progressed, with 1,464 military officers, police, and civilians accused of crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship, only 75 have been sentenced, says the Center for Legal Studies (CELS). In addition, courts have convicted 649 people, and only 75 have been sentenced. Of the 649 awaiting trial, 421 are under arrest while 228 are leading normal lives in their homes.

Relatives of the military charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder have attempted to rally support in defense of the dictatorship’s actions. Former interim president, Eduardo Duhalde, hoping to run for presidency in 2011, has called for a plebiscite on whether to grant amnesty to military, which he called a "witch hunt."

During this year’s massive march for the commemoration of Argentina’s 30,000 disappeared, protestors and human rights groups expressed immediate concerns about delays in legal proceedings and resistant judges contributing to delays in the human rights trials. "Only a few who formed part of this genocide are being tried in the justice system. There are still a lot left to be charged," said Estela Carlotta.

Human rights groups say that to ensure witness safety, the trials need to progress in a timely fashion and to ensure that those charged be sent to regular jails and have surveillance in their contact with the outside world. Adriana Calvo, who was kidnapped and forced to give birth in a detention center run by Etchecolatz, has admitted that Silvia Suppo’s murder "has spawned fear, like the disappearance of Julio Lopez. Unless authorities can prove the motives behind the murder, we think that Suppo’s death was politically motivated to brutally threaten the witnesses."

Calvo, a torture survivor who has participated in the human rights movement for over three decades, added that if Suppo’s murder was meant to intimidate witnesses it didn’t work. Calvo said that those responsible for the crimes during the dictatorship haven’t accomplished their mission because activists continue to fight and "the terror hasn’t paralyzed us."

 

Marie Trigona is a journalist based in Argentina and writes regularly for the Americas Program (

www.americaspolicy.org). She can be reached at mtrigona(a)msn.com.

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