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Police brutality continued to be the principal human rights concern in Argentina in 1998, followed by threats and attacks on independent journalists and the government’s unwillingness to provide justice for abuses committed under the military dictatorships in power from 1976 to 1983. Of particular concern were statements by President Carlos Menem suggesting a willingness to tolerate human rights violations by law enforcement agencies in the name of fighting common crime. In an interview published in thenewspaper Clarín on September 13, President Menem repeated his view that the only solution to rising crime was “zero tolerance. Hard line.” He added that “some human rights defense organizations can object, but I think that here criminals have more protection than the police or the people.” Menem returned to this theme on September 23 (quoted in Clarín the following day), saying that “when I talk about hard line and zero tolerance, immediately some people say that would mean a return to the ‘easy trigger,’ but we can’t leave the easy trigger to the criminals.”

Buenos Aires' provincial governor and probable 1999 presidential candidate Eduardo Duhalde responded to these statements by saying, “We can’t confuse a firm line with a hard line. That was why at the time I dissolved the then Buenos Aires Police, because I don’t want to have in my province a hard line police like there was during the period of repression under the last dictatorship.” Menem’s statements were used by members of the ruling party bloc in Congress to try to speed up passage of laws that would impose higher sentences for repeat offenders, reduce the number of cases in which bail would be granted, and define the act of “criminal conspiracy,” which would allow police to detain individuals on the basis of their “suspicious attitudes.”

Argentine law enforcement remained in the hands of twenty-three provincial police forces and the Federal Police, which had jurisdiction in the capital, Buenos Aires, and delegations throughout the country. Although reforms were initiated in a number of forces, including the two most widely questioned—the Federal Police and the Buenos Aires Provincial Police—human rights violations by police remained frequent, and investigation and prosecution rare. Dozens of such cases remained unresolved years after their occurrence.

Police abuses in Argentina included excessive use of force in controlling demonstrations, such as an August 13, 1998 incident in which the provincial police in Jujuy province used batons, tear gas, and rubber bullets against public employees demanding payment of back salaries, leaving thirty wounded. Other cases included killings in alleged “shoot-outs” with the police, in which investigations often demonstrated that the police shot the victims point-blank and then fabricated evidence of a shoot-out (such as the planting of a gun on the victim’s body); the killing of innocent bystanders during armed confrontations between the police and criminal suspects; deaths in police custody, frequently after beatings to force confessions, later often described as suicide; so-called “easy trigger” cases in which police officers shot to kill rather than seeking to detain suspects (sometimes due to minor provocations); “disappearances” in police custody; and harassment of or attacks on witnesses to these crimes.

On January 9, 1998, police detained Carlos Andrés Sutara at the bus station in the northern city of Jujuy (in the province of the same name) on the pretext of verifying whether he had a criminal record and took him to a police station in the city, where he later died. A witness detained with Sutara alleged that he had died as a result of beatings at the hands of the police. In October 1998 five police officers of the Investigations Brigade in Jujuy were detained on charges of torture followed by death, and three other officers were charged with torture through negligence.

On January 15, 1998, Walter Repetto was shot dead by a corporal of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police, Carlos Docampo, who was at the time in civilian clothes. Repetto had parked his car in the area of Ciudad Evita, Greater Buenos Aires, when Corporal Docampo approached him, apparently believing him to be a thief. Corporal Docampo did not identify himself as a police officer, according to witnesses, and did not give an order to halt. When Repetto attempted to drive away, believing that the other man planned to assault him, Corporal Docampo shot Repetto dead.

According to his relatives, sixteen-year-old Diego Pavón was executed by two agents of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police on May 22, 1998, in Avellaneda, Buenos Aires province, following a chase. This case was presented before a local criminal court, on the grounds of “abuse of authority,” abuse of a weapon, and homicide, but the agents— Hector Peñalva and Osmar Dalmiro Morena —were not detained.

On September 17, Federal Police Sgt. Marcelo Havrylein suffered an attack on his home, in which a police guard was wounded. On August 18 another police guard had been wounded in a similar incident at Havrylein’s home. The attacks, as well as death threats, followed Havrylein’s public denunciation of corruption at the 16th police station in Buenos Aires, including bribes taken by the police for the protection of prostitutes, transvestites, and others, as a result of which the police guard had been assigned to his home. Havrylein was subsequently moved to a hidden location.

Members of the gay and lesbian community and sex workers such as prostitutes and transvestites were among the principal victims of police abuses arising from the security forces’ discretionary powers to carry out preventive detentions, including for verification of identity or police record. Many were subjected to torture or other physical and verbal abuse, as well as extortion of bribes in exchange for not being detained. In the city of Buenos Aires, police detention powers were curtailed by a new Misdemeanors Code (or Code of Urban Co-Existence) that came into effect in March 1998. This code effectively limited the power to detain those allegedly offering sexual services in public (re-classified as a misdemeanor), except in cases where they were also alleged to be guilty of disorderly conduct or other offenses that could produce danger or damages. In these cases, the detainee had to be brought before a judge immediately if a public prosecutor considered that he or she should remain in custody.

Similarly, reforms began in the Buenos Aires Provincial Police, including the placing of the entire force under civilian control in December 1997 and the removal of 300 superior officers from police functions for a variety of reasons, including corruption and covering up criminal activity. Special brigades set up to fight specific crimes such as drug trafficking were also dissolved, having been determined to have become accomplices rather than enemies of this type of crime. In August 1998, a Law for the Organization of the Police of the Province of Buenos Aires was promulgated, which modified the force’s questionable methods of recruitment and training (alleged to favor the recruitment of individuals with a predisposition to violence and to include training in abusive and unprofessional police tactics), modified the system of custody and transfer of detainees, and created three separate types of police force: road safety police, investigative police, and the security (crime prevention) police.

At the same time, on September 28, 1998, a new Code of Penal Procedure entered into force in Buenos Aires province that,among other provisions, passed responsibility for criminal investigations from judges to public prosecutors and transferred cases currently in the hands of the provincial police to investigating lawyers. The new code also required criminal investigations to be completed within four months from the date of detention of an accused or up to a maximum of fourteen months in exceptionally complex cases, both reducing pre-trial detention periods and ensuring that criminal cases (including those involving accused police officers) would not be dragged out indefinitely.

Although formal restrictions on the right to freedom of expression did not exist in Argentina, threats and attacks on journalists continued to occur. From 1995 through October 1998, forty-three journalists were attacked in Argentina, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. These attacks ranged from legal harassment to physical assault. One of the most famous cases, in which the Buenos Aires Provincial Police were accused, was the January 25, 1997 kidnapping and murder of journalist José Luis Cabezas. Cabezas had been investigating links between the Buenos Aires Provincial Police and organized crime, as well as the activities of the controversial businessman Alfredo Yabrán, later accused of having hired former provincial police officers to threaten Cabezas. Following the failure of the provincial police to preserve evidence and the arrest of various individuals (later released) on the basis of evidence allegedly invented by the police, as of late 1998 four former police officers, a police informer, and four civilians were detained in connection with the case.

On January 26, 1998, the vice-president of the Photojournalists’ Association (Asociación de Reporteros Gráficos, ARGRA) received telephoned death threats, a day after he had been the final speaker at a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of Cabezas’s murder. Dozens of journalists, in particular from local or provincial newspapers, suffered threats or attacks during the year, some in connection with reporting on the Cabezas case. Among the most serious assaults was on the Salta province-based journalist David Leiva, whose home was fired on in February after he had already received a number of death threats by letter and telephone. The threats and assault followed publication of an article concerning the actions of the Gendarmería police force. In March, the car of Chaco province-based journalist Bernardo Balbuena was set on fire, the second attack on a director of his newspaper, El Diario . In many other cases, journalists were threatened or accused of being subversives, and a number of public functionaries either denounced journalistic endeavors as invasions of their privacy or directly threatened journalists reporting on their activities. Although in August 1998 two police officers of the Rio Negro provincial police were convicted (to suspended sentences) for having beaten three journalists covering a demonstration in December 1995, most instances of persecution of journalists resulted in neither ongoing investigations nor prosecutions.

Other actions limiting press freedom included a series of court rulings ordering journalists or their publications to pay damages for published material relating to investigations of political figures (even where, in the case of a lawsuit against the magazine Noticias by President Menem, the court considered the information published to be true), as well as the repeated dismissal from their posts of journalists considered to be “uncomfortable” for the authorities.

In September 1998 the Supreme Court ordered an actress to pay U.S.$30,000 in damages to a judge whose name was used in a Channel 13 television sketch satirizing the family court system in a comedy program in 1991. Three of the nine judges dissented, and one noted that the use of caricature falls within the freedom to criticize. The ruling was one of several which infringed press freedom during 1998, including a Supreme Court decision ordering the newspaper Página 12 to publish a reply rectifying an article which was not proved to have been inaccurate and a civil court ruling ordering the magazine Noticias to pay U.S.$150,000 in damages for publishing information on President Menem’s illegitimate son. According to the court, this invaded Menem’s private life, although the court itself considered the information accurate.

Another Supreme Court ruling in October 1998 had a chilling effect on investigative journalism in the country. The court sentenced the editor of Humor to one month of imprisonment for an article on corruption that implicated the president’s brother, Senator Eduardo Menem. Humor had reprinted information published in an Uruguayan magazine and included Senator Menem’s denial with the article. The Supreme Court based its ruling on the unsubstantiated argument that the magazine acted with “actual malice” in publishing the information.

Another episode involving threats against a journalist returned Argentines’ attention to the outstanding human rights cases from the period of military rule. In January 1998 the magazine trespuntos published an interview with retired Navy Capt. Alfredo Astiz, of the former clandestine detention center at the Navy Mechanics’ School (Escuela Mecánica de la Armada, ESMA). In that interview, Astiz admitted that the armed forces had adopted the policy of murdering detainees in order to prevent their later release. At the same time, Astiz bragged that he was the person “best prepared technically in this country to kill a politician or a journalist” and warned that journalists “should be careful, or they would end up badly.” Astiz also insinuated that Cabezas had been killed with some official involvement. Astiz was expelled from the Navy as a result of his statements, and a federal judge brought charges against him for having made threats in the interview. After the interview was published, the journalist involved, Gabriela Cerruti, received telephoned death threats on two occasions, both couched in language typical of what used to be the military style.

In 1998 Argentina participated in the drafting of the convention leading to the establishment of an international criminal court set up to deal with war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Yet this positive international action contrasted with authorities’ reluctance to press for domestic investigations or prosecution of the crimes against humanity that had occurred under military rule. The Argentine government consistently refused to collaborate with the judicial investigation opened by Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón into the “disappearance” of 600 Spanish citizens under the Argentine dictatorship, claiming that the Spanish courts did not have jurisdiction. The government also argued that the cases could not be opened because of the “full stop” and “due obedience” laws of December 1986 and June 1987, which precluded judicial proceedings against all armed forces personnel involved in those human rights violations except those responsible for rape or for abduction and misappropriation of children. Argentine Justice Minister Raúl Granillo Ocampo repeatedly refused to cooperate with the investigations of Judge Garzón (including throughextradition of former Argentine junta members) and rejected his competence in these cases. President Carlos Menem also accused Garzón of “harassing” accused members of the Argentine armed forces and instructed ministers to block the investigations.

Within Argentina, attempts to investigate violations under the dictatorship continued, although with little success. In July 1998 federal Judge Roberto Marquevich ordered the detention of former de facto president, Gen. Jorge R. Videla, in connection with cases of the kidnapping and falsifying of the identity of children of the “disappeared” (most of them born in clandestine detention centers and handed over to military families), one of the few crimes not covered by the full stop and due obedience laws. Although Videla was allowed to remain under house arrest after refusing to testify, public prosecutor Eduardo Treiler later urged the court to charge him, Adm. Emilio Massera, and other former junta members on the same basis, arguing that the practice of the kidnapping of children born in the Campo de Mayo and ESMA detention centers had been ordered by Videla and that he and other junta members had knowledge of the events. A public prosecutor later determined that the issue fell under the jurisdiction of the Armed Forces Supreme Council and should be transferred out of Judge Marquevich’s hands.

In a similar case, in August 1998 the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos, APDH) in Tucumán province announced that it would present cases relating to five missing children born in detention to “disappeared” mothers in the province in the period 1976-1978. These cases would involve charges against Gen. Antonio Domingo Bussi, then-military governor of the province and chief of the V Infantry Brigade in charge of fighting subversion in the province. (Bussi had since become currently the elected governor of Tucumán.)

Another obstacle to investigation of past violations was imposed by a Supreme Court decision on August 13 to the effect that the mother of a “disappearance” victim, Carmen Aguiar de Lapacó, did not have the right of access to official records in order to learn the fate of her daughter, Alejandra Lapacó. The court denied access on the grounds that the case been legally closed, although prosecution was stated not to be the aim of the plaintiff. Faced with calls for impeachment of the five judges who voted in favor of this decision, Supreme Court Judge Augusto Belluscio denied that the decision closed the possibility of investigations, which he said could be sought via a petition for protection of constitutional rights, but not via the federal courts. In late September, the Supreme Court upheld the right of another relative to access to government files in order to determine the whereabouts of his brother (a guerrilla leader killed in a confrontation in 1976 and whose body was subsequently hidden by the military government).













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