Human Rights Developments
The October 1998 arrest in London of Chile's former military ruler, Augusto Pinochet, rekindled hopes for victims of human rights abuses around the world. The case marked a significant step forward in the struggle to achieve justice for egregious human rights violations, spawning the development of similar efforts to pursue former dictators enjoying retirement in the comfort of impunity. Accustomed to seeing impunity as the norm, human rights activists worldwide were encouraged by Pinochet's detention. In Latin America, in particular, impunity for major violations continued to be one of the principle obstacles to human rights protection. Although democracies in the region remained stable for the most part, human rights violations took place throughout, nowhere more brutally than in Colombia. And even as the Pinochet precedent broke new ground, fresh challenges to international human rights mechanisms arose.
Significantly, Chile did not face political instability as a consequence of the legal action taken against the general in Spain and the United Kingdom. Opponents of the Spanish prosecution had predicted dire political consequences if it moved forward, in part as a means to pressure the two European countries into ensuring that Pinochet was returned to Chile without facing charges in Spain. Yet by the end of October 1999, Chile was preparing without turmoil for a presidential election in December in which Pinochet was not a major issue. Meanwhile, judges detained and charged numerous former officers of his government for grave human rights abuses. Moreover, a majority of Chileans, according to public opinion polls, believed that Pinochet should be brought to account for the human rights violations that accompanied his coup.
The regional pattern of elected governments was interrupted only in Cuba, where Fidel Castro celebrated in January his fortieth year in power on the island, giving no sign of loosening the reins of power. Indeed, the March sentencing of four dissidents to terms ranging from three and a half to five years in prison furnished a sharp reminder of the government's intolerance of criticism. As this and other prosecutions demonstrated, the political opening that accompanied Pope John Paul's January 1998 visit to Cuba did not survive the year. Cuban law continued to infringe basic rights, including those of free expression and association, and government interference in the courts undermined the right to a fair trial.
Although democratic rule was well entrenched in the region, no country illustrated better than Colombia that the existence of an elected civilian government did not necessarily result in the protection of human rights. Not only did the armed conflict there show no signs of abating, despite a major peace initiative launched by President Andrés Pastrana, but human rights violations proliferated as the fighting intensified. Guerrillas used territory ceded them by the government to further war, rather than talk peace. Paramilitary groups working in some areas with the tolerance and even open support of the military continued to massacre civilians, commit targeted assassinations, and spread terror. Guerrillas, too, flouted international humanitarian law, kidnapping and executing civilians and carrying out indiscriminate attacks. Desperate Colombians throughout the country fled the violence, with narrowing possibilities of finding refuge, food, or medical care. Meanwhile, Washington moved forward with plans to supply massive amounts of military aid to Colombia.
In Peru, the chronic weaknesses of many of the country's political and judicial institutions contributed to human rights violations. The frailty of the judiciary and legislature, to a large degree the work of Fujimori, permitted the president to exercise ever-increasing authoritarian control. He continued during the year to prepare the ground for his second reelection bid in voting scheduled for 2000, although the legality of a third term remained dubious. Government-inspired campaigns of hostility and intimidation of independent media outlets continued to hinder the expression of political views, while judges whose decisions threatened government interests faced sudden transfers out of their posts. Hundreds of Peruvians unjustly convicted or facing trial for terrorist offenses remained in high-security prisons under an extremely harsh prison regime. Although Fujimori had earlier allowed the establishment of an Ad Hoc Commission to review cases and recommend presidential pardons for those unjustly convicted, he authorized only seven pardons out of more than fifty cases forwarded to him by the commission in the first eight months of 1999. As described in more detail below, Peru also took unprecedented steps to defy the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Unlike in Peru, where the weaknesses of political and judicial systems were the outcome of political design, in Haiti the debility of democratic institutions-and the consequent vulnerability of human rights-resulted more from political chaos. Infighting among erstwhile allies in the Lavalas movement continued to stymie institutional development, stalled since the June 1997 resignation of Prime Minister Rosny Smarth. The country's political crisis deepened in January 1999, when President René Préval abruptly dismissed Parliament and named a new prime minister and cabinet. Political violence and killings by police-although nowhere near the levels reached during military governments-mounted. Elections intended to resolve the crisis were postponed until March 2000. The justice system remained largely dysfunctional, unable to establish a bulwark against human rights violations and woefully delayed in processing Haiti's burgeoning prison population, the vast majority of which remained in pretrial detention.
Police violence reached disturbing levels in Haiti, after dropping for two years running. In addition to several reported extrajudicial executions, the Haitian National Police apparently engaged in the first cases of forced "disappearance" since the end of military rule. In Guatemala as well as Haiti, dramatic law enforcement failures led ordinary citizens to dispense their own crude form of justice through the lynching of suspected criminals.
In Venezuela, the December 1998 presidential elections were won by former army Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez Frías, creating uncertain prospects for human rights and democracy. Chávez had led an unsuccessful military coup in 1992, gone to prison, and then returned to public life as a political reformer crusading to rid the country of its notorious problems of corruption, political mismanagement, and poverty. A constituent assembly to write a new constitution was formed in April; it later declared the political, legislative, and justice systems to be in emergency, assuming extraordinary authority to intervene. Democratically elected members of Congress were prohibited by the assembly from meeting and exercising their authority. Chávez eventually permitted Congress to assume some of its functions, and the country stepped back before abrogating the rule of law. Indeed, some endemic human rights problems, such as arbitrary arrests, dropped dramatically thanks to the Chávez government's decision to stop conducting police raids in poor neighborhoods. Nonetheless, terrible prison conditions and police violence, including the commission of extrajudicial executions, persisted.
Overall, the region's democracies demonstrated difficulties in handling the demands of guaranteeing public security and justice while at the same time respecting human rights. Security issues remained paramount in the public discourse as police forces failed to protect crime-weary populations. Officials and aspiring politicians were quick to scapegoat human rights protections as the cause of rising crime, rather than examining its real causes: impunity for powerful criminals, the persistence of desperate poverty, and corrupt and ineffective courts and police. In Argentina, aspiring or actual government officials competed with each other to justify unlimited brutality in the suppression of crime. Vice President Carlos Ruckauf, the ruling Justicialist Party's candidate for governor of Buenos Aires province, recklessly urged police to "kill murderers" and "shoot criminals," while independent candidate Luis Patti warned that if criminal suspects "want their rights respected, they should go to Costa Rica." These comments were especially inflammatory in the context of rising police violence against civilians, as was the case in Buenos Aires province.
In Mexico, too, political, business, and even religious leaders spoke out against human rights defenders, blaming human rights guarantees for exacerbating crime by protecting criminals to the detriment of law-abiding citizens. One successful candidate for governor ran a get-tough-on-crime campaign ad proclaiming that "human rights are for humans, not rats." In this context, Mexico's federal government in February and March approved constitutional reforms that would weaken human rights protections in the fight against crime. Changes in Mexico's legal procedure for challenging the actions of authorities, known as amparo , would expand the circumstances in which prosecutions could move forward despite the violation of due process guarantees. These reforms, once approved by a majority of Mexican states, would also make it easier for prosecutors to obtain arrest warrants by lowering the evidence of crime required.
In Mexico many human rights violations were compounded by the indifference of prosecutors and judges to abuses committed against criminal defendants. While the former fabricated evidence or overlooked abuses by police or soldiers, the latter sought ways to sentence defendants without acknowledging these problems. The key to judges' ability to do so was the principle of "procedural immediacy." Whereas in most countries procedural immediacy means that statements made in front of a judge are more credible than those made elsewhere, in Mexico, it was interpreted to mean that statements made first in time were assigned greater weight. This resulted in the awarding of greater weight to statements made by defendants in police custody, often under torture, undermining the value of any subsequent retractions before judges.
Police killings of civilians remained at high levels in Brazil's major cities, although some areas showed improvement. Rio de Janeiro police killed fewer civilians after the appointment of a new security chief and the creation of an ombudsman's office. In São Paulo state, however, figures for the first three months of 1999 suggested police violence would rise for the third straight year in a row. Meanwhile, the failure of several high profile prosecutions of police for extreme cases of brutality did not bode well for establishing accountability for such crimes.
Peru's President Alberto Fujimori, the region's most authoritarian elected civilian leader, demonstrated his contempt for international human rights norms when he announced in late May that his government would not comply with a judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court, a judicial arm of the Organization of American States, had ordered Peru to grant a fair trial to four Chileans who had been convicted by Peru's faceless military courts of "treason," an aggravated form of terrorism in Peru. The summary trial the Chileans had received, the court ruled, violated numerous due process provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights. Two weeks later, Peru's Supreme Court declared that it would not carry out a similar court judgment regarding a Peruvian woman denied basic fair trial guarantees by a faceless military court. Judgments of the Inter-American Court are legally binding; thus Fujimori's announcement brought Peru into direct defiance of the inter-American system of human rights protection. While other governments had delayed implementing remedies ordered by the court, none had previously refused to adhere to them.
Fujimori subsequently made matters worse when he announced that Peru would withdraw from the compulsory jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court, an action unprecedented since the founding of the court in 1979. The court had become the last resort for Peruvian human rights victims, given persistent government interference in the Peruvian judiciary and amnesty laws that prevented accountability for past human rights violations.
While Fujimori's government openly defied the court, a movement to expand the use of the death penalty in several Caribbean nations continued, similarly undermining regional adherence to international human rights protections. Trinidad and Tobago hanged ten convicted murderers in June and July alone, including a high-profile series of executions that sent nine alleged gang members to the gallows. In carrying out six executions during the year, Trinidad and Tobago ignored an injunction issued in 1998 by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which had ordered the country to hold off until after the court had reviewed the cases in detail. St. Lucia, the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, and Guyana said they would follow suit, arguing that hangings were needed to reduce soaring crime rates. In spite of international pressure and efforts by human rights defenders, regional support for capital punishment remained strong, with an estimated approval rating of 70 percent in Trinidad and Tobago and 88 percent in Barbados. At this writing, reported murder statistics for the Caribbean did not indicate that the recent surge in executions had deterred serious crime.
Efforts to remove stumbling blocks to the use of the death penalty-including internationally established legal protections for death row inmates-revealed a marked defiance of international norms among Caribbean governments. In late 1998, Guyana amended its ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights such that death row inmates could not submit their cases to the U.N. Human Rights Committee. The move came after the committee suggested freeing two death row inmates because of due process violations in the trials that resulted in their convictions. Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago announced their intent to withdraw from the American Convention on Human Rights, a move that would effectively eliminate important remedies for people in those countries who wished to use the inter-American human rights system to have their rights respected. Meanwhile, frustrated by British attempts to curb use of the death penalty among former colonies, several Caribbean governments plan to replace the Privy Council, a London-based panel of law lords serving as the region's highest court, with a newly created Caribbean Court of Justice. Already dubbed a "hanging court" by detractors, the new judicial body was scheduled to open in October 2000.
Strengthening of Universal Jurisdiction
The Pinochet case greatly reinforced the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity. In this regard, the March 1999 decision by London's House of Lords that former heads of state are not shielded by immunity for egregious crimes like murder and torture marked a significant international legal precedent. Universal jurisdiction is particularly useful for countries where grave internal divisions limit the possibilities for achieving justice for powerful wrongdoers within the nation's borders.
In the Pinochet case, universal jurisdiction offered the possibility of trial by a court that was truly independent of the powers the former military chief could bring to bear inside Chile, where he continued to exert tremendous influence over the still-powerful armed forces.
Although Chile refused to cooperate with the efforts of Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón in the Pinochet case, its record of cooperation with efforts to establish an International Criminal Court (ICC) was noteworthy. On September 11, 1998, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the military coup that brought Pinochet to power, Chile signed the Rome Statute for the establishment of the court. Chilean officials said the nation's own experience contributed to their government's enthusiastic adhesion to the ICC project. A bill to ratify the statute was at this writing under debate in the Chilean Congress.
Support for the ICC grew in the region during 1999. Delegates engaged in increasingly active negotiations at meetings of the Preparatory Commission to draft rules of procedure and evidence, and as part of the so-called like-minded group promoting early ratification of the Rome Treaty. In March, Trinidad and Tobago became the first country in the region to ratify the treaty. In addition to Chile, advances toward ratification were made in Argentina, Bolivia, and Venezuela.
Defending Human Rights
Throughout the region a growing network of human rights organizations, neighborhood groups, and religious associations worked to protect human rights with few impediments imposed by governments or other forces interested in silencing human rights criticism. Cuba and Colombia stood as the starkest exceptions in this respect. Yet other countries, including Chile, Mexico, and Peru, saw monitors threatened. Throughout the region, only Cuba imposed harsher legal restrictions on foreign human rights monitors than Mexico.
In Cuba, the relatively small number of individuals and organizations promoting human rights were obliged to keep an extremely low profile as the price of being allowed to exist. The continued prosecution and sentencing of advocates of peaceful reform made clear the limits of political space for human rights work in Cuba. The Cuban government sentenced four leaders of the Internal Dissidents' Working Group to up to five years in prison in March. The leaders had been in pretrial detention since 1997 when the group released a paper analyzing the Cuban economy, political structure and human rights record.
As has sadly been the case in prior years, Colombia's harsh environment for human rights defenders translated into threats, intimidation, and murder. During the first nine months of the year, two human rights defenders, Julio González and Everardo de Jesús Puerta, were killed and dozens of others threatened. Two academics who worked in support of human rights were also murdered. Several human rights groups were forced by threats into closing their doors. Paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño's forces also took hostage four rights monitors and Sen. Piedad Córdoba, a strong human rights defender, in a bid to force the government to negotiate with the group. All five were later released unharmed. Dozens of other human rights defenders faced death threats.
Although the Colombian government promised to provide U.S. $4 million in assistance to human rights groups, the money was slow to materialize, short of what was promised, and often short-lived. The money was slated for protective measures including the provision of bulletproof glass for the offices of human rights organizations, radios, taxis, and police protection.
In Guatemala, the situation of human rights monitors remained bleak as President Alvaro Arzú did not even muster rhetorical support for their work amidst frequent death threats and acts of intimidation. In a reckless act, given the threatening climate in which they operate, Arzú used the occasion of the annual OAS General Assembly meeting to lambast unnamed nongovernmental organizations as "cloaked instruments for foreign politics." Meanwhile, the murder in April 1998 of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, founder of the Catholic church's principal human rights office in Guatemala, continued to cast a long shadow as every significant witness, and finally the government's prosecutor, Celvin Galindo, was forced to flee the country because of threats. At this writing, no one was in custody for the slaying.
In Haiti, well-known human rights defender Pierre Espérance was shot in the knee and shoulder by drive-by shooters as political violence deepened. In Brazil, human rights defenders faced harassment and threats. A witness in the trial for the 1996 murder of human rights attorney Gilson Nogueira was slain as the trial proceeded. Defenders were threatened with death in Peru and Mexico as well as in Chile, where those openly supporting the Pinochet prosecution were repeatedly targeted.
Official ombudsman's offices in some areas enjoyed great credibility due to their independent and diligent work on behalf of human rights. Among these were the office of the People's Defender in Peru, headed by Jorge Santistevan, as well as human rights commissions created by state, municipal, and federal legislatures in Brazil. With notable independence, these commissions looked into allegations of human rights abuse, monitored the conduct of state agents, and publicly denounced abuses.
The Role of the International Community
Organization of American States
The human rights protection mechanisms of the Organization of American States received a boost in December 1998, when Mexico and Brazil formally accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Nonetheless, this important development was subsequently overshadowed by Peruvian President Fujimori's recalcitrant position toward the court. The public reactions of governments in the region to Peru's withdrawal from the court were muted, compounding the potential of the Peruvian action to weaken the system.
After receiving formal notification that Peru intended to withdraw from the court's jurisdiction, OAS Secretary General César Gaviria issued a statement that failed to clearly repudiate the action. Rather, he praised the Peruvian government's anti-terrorist policies that were at the heart of the court case against which Peru had reacted. However, he subsequently issued a strong condemnation of the action, referring to the proposed withdrawal from the court's jurisdiction as a "step backward," and calling Peru's failure to implement the court's rulings an even more urgent problem for the inter-American system to overcome.
The OAS itself failed to set punitive sanctions for Peru's behavior, although within the context of the OAS Permanent Council several countries expressed their dissatisfaction with Peru.
In September, the Inter-American Court declared Peru's withdrawal from the court's jurisdiction inadmissable, a decision that was to enable the court to continue hearing cases against Peru regardless of Fujimori's decisions. "There is no norm in the American Convention [on Human Rights] that empowers States Parties to withdraw their declaration of acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court," the court found.
The armed conflict in Colombia received increasing attention from policy-makers in the United States as 1999 progressed, becoming the chief focus of U.S. foreign policy in the region. More high-level U.S. diplomats, congressional delegations, CIA officials, and military officers visited Colombia during the year than at any other time in recent history. The topics of aid to Colombia and human rights violations figured squarely on the agenda. Republicans in Congress and the administration of President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, sparred over how best to shore up the Colombian government within the framework of the so-called Leahy amendment, which conditioned U.S. counternarcotics aid on the human rights records of the units to receive aid.
The debate over Colombia was shadowed by the link between leftist guerrillas and the trade in illegal drugs, as the U.S. Southern Command contended that the guerrillas were
"narco-traffickers" and therefore legitimate targets of the drug war. This point of view, although exaggerated, was largely accepted by influential sectors within the State Department and Congress. While proving a convenient concept for streamlining policy, the contention failed to take into account the oftentimes larger role played by other groups-including right-wing paramilitaries engaged in battling guerrillas-in drug trafficking.
In July, White House drug advisor Gen. (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey outlined a proposal to double U.S. aid to Colombia to almost $600 million, much of it for the Colombian army. By mid-1999 the United States had reviewed the human rights records and approved aid for the Colombian navy, the air force, five army units, and a new anti-narcotics battalion. However, the focus on military aid, and not support for civilian institutions, threatened to turn some American officials into apologists for the military's human rights record. Human rights and support for peace efforts became increasingly secondary components of U.S. policy. In general, the methods used by the United States to screen Colombian security forces remained largely secret, severely hindering efforts to evaluate the success of U.S. law conditioning aid on respect for human rights.
U.S. policy concerns appeared premised on the idea that pumping money into the drug effort as a way to fight leftist guerrillas would hasten the arrival of peace and stability in Colombia. However, the premise failed to factor in the army's still-pervasive shielding of human rights criminals and support and tolerance of paramilitaries. Already by the time General McCaffrey traveled to Colombia, the United States had begun sharing sensitive intelligence on guerrillas with the Colombian army. Although the State Department said that it had received "explicit assurances" that the intelligence "will be used only for the purposes for which it is intended and will not be shared with any outside groups," no explanation was made of the mechanisms by which the United States could ascertain that intelligence would not be passed on to paramilitaries. In the past, the Colombian army had provided intelligence to paramilitaries, who used the information to commit atrocities.
During 1999, the United States was also forced, with great reluctance, to focus on issues related to the prosecution of Augusto Pinochet. The White House said little when Pinochet was arrested in London, but when the Spanish extradition request gained momentum in Europe, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed sympathy for Chile's position, asking that the country be allowed to balance reconciliation and justice on its own terms. In essence, this meant that the United States supported the Chilean government's effort to have Pinochet returned to Chile despite the lack of any real possibility that he would stand trial there.
United States government authorities at first dragged their feet in response to an official Spanish request for documentation on human rights violations in Chile, made under the terms of the bilateral Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty. Then in February the Clinton Administration requested that U.S. agencies declassify and release such documents. In June, an estimated 5,300 documents were released, revealing the depth of the knowledge the United States had at the time about serious human rights violations committed under Pinochet's command. The documents also confirmed the inconsistency between what the U.S. government knew and what it said and did on human rights cases from that period. In addition, the documents supported contentions made by human rights defenders that Pinochet was directly in command of the secret police, whose actions were responsible for a majority of the abuses committed during the period of military rule.
A second batch of more than 1,000 documents was released in October, revealing more details about what the United States knew. Of the documents released, a State Department memo from August 1976 deserved particular attention, because it revealed that the U.S. intelligence may have been linked to the murder of U.S. citizen Charles Horman, who was killed by Chilean security forces after the coup. The document explained: "There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest: U.S. intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman's death. At best, it was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the GOC [Government of Chile]. At worst, U.S. intelligence was aware the GOC saw Horman in a rather serious light and U.S. officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of GOC paranoia."
In September, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a rogatory letter to the Chilean Supreme Court asking for cooperation with the U.S. investigation into the 1976 car-bomb murder in Washington, D.C., of Orlando Letelier, a former minister in the government of Salvador Allende, overthrown by the Chilean military, and U.S. citizen Ronni Karpen Moffitt.
Since Pinochet's arrest in London, the official policy of the United States was to insist that the matter was between the United Kingdom, Spain, and Chile. This misplaced neutrality presupposed wrongly that the promotion of justice in general and the prosecution of a man ultimately responsible for the murder of U.S. citizens and a terrorist attack in Washington, D.C., was of no importance to the United States.
The Work of Human Rights Watch
The Americas division of Human Rights Watch continued to focus its work on a core group of priority countries, while also taking up the issue of the Pinochet prosecution. We published the results of investigations into abuses in Brazil, Chile, Cuba, and Mexico, and followed up on the issues raised in publications from prior years. The release of reports provided the basis for intensive advocacy campaigns designed to engage policy-makers in processes of reform to promote human rights. In Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, the executive director of the Americas division met with high-level government officials to press our concerns.
During the year we also sent dozens of letters to government officials throughout the region urging them to institute improvements in human rights protection. In doing so, the division focused on important individual cases of human rights abuses that permitted advocacy on broader issues related to U.S. policy, military justice systems, the failures of criminal justice systems, and myriad other topics.
In conjunction with the legal and advocacy departments of Human Rights Watch, the Americas division developed legal briefs submitted in London in support of the arrest and extradition of Pinochet. With leave from the House of Lords, Human Rights Watch submitted three briefs in the case. At the same time, we worked to stimulate public support for the prosecution in Chile, the United States, Spain, and the United Kingdom, developing multiple briefing and advocacy documents.
In November 1998, the division released The Limits of Tolerance: Freedom of Expression and the Public Debate in Chile . The report, published in English and Spanish, detailed the enduring legacy of restricted freedom of expression following the period of military rule in Chile. The publication found that the country had failed to bring its laws into line with international human rights standards, continuing to apply laws inimical to those norms.
In December we released Behind Bars in Brazil , an analysis of appalling conditions of confinement, including prisons, jails, and police lockups in Brazil, which had the largest inmate population in Latin America and one of the largest in the world. Overcrowding, riots, hostage-taking, and killings formed part of the penal crisis, but the government failed to institute reforms to remedy the problem.
Ending a busy three-month period of report releases, in January we published Systemic Injustice: Torture, "Disappearance," and Extrajudicial Execution in Mexico . The document, released in English and Spanish, detailed the ways in which Mexico's justice system, understood to encompass police, prosecutors, and judges, failed to apply human rights standards in criminal prosecutions, thereby exacerbating the country's serious human rights problems.
Human rights violations in Cuba received comprehensive analysis in the June report Cuba's Repressive Machinery: Human Rights Forty Years After the Revolution . The report was published in English and Spanish and detailed the ways in which Cuban law restrict human rights and how, in practice, authorities stifle free expression, association and assembly and silence dissent.
In October 1999, we published When Tyrants Tremble: The Pinochet Case , an analysis of the impact of the arrest of the former dictator in Chile, and its current and future relevance to international law.
ARGENTINAHuman Rights Developments
Police violence remained rampant in Argentina during 1999 and most cases resulted in impunity for the perpetrators. Although in a limited number of cases investigations were begun into alleged police brutality, few of these resulted in sanctions against those involved, due in part to a lack of political will and to the fact that police, responsible for investigations, were rarely willing to pursue cases actively against their colleagues. Equally disturbing were statements by several government officials or candidates for office that appeared to justify unlimited brutality in the suppression of crime. Serious human rights violations by the police came at a time of rising criminal violence, an increased number of police killed in shootouts, and presidential and gubernatorial elections to be held on October 24, in the run-up to which candidates frequently sought to capture votes by expressing their intention of taking a "hard line" on crime.
According to the local human rights organization Center for Legal and Social Studies (Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, CELS), 140 people were killed by the police in the Federal Capital and Greater Buenos Aires area during the first half of 1999, in comparison with eighty-six in the second half of 1998. In the city of Buenos Aires alone, thirty-eight civilians and eight police officers were killed in the first six months of 1999, while in Greater Buenos Aires the number of deaths reached 102 and twenty-six, respectively. While this increase came in the context of an important rise in criminal violence, including the killing of police officers, CELS noted that the problem of police killings was aggravated by the lack of training of police personnel, and by the fact that these killings were very rarely investigated and did not lead to sanctions against the officers involved.
In this context, Vice-President Carlos Ruckauf, candidate of the ruling Justicialista Party for the governorship of Buenos Aires province, called for a stronger police response to high levels of public insecurity, recklessly stating that he considered it necessary to "kill murderers" or to "shoot criminals." The principal independent candidate for the governorship of Buenos Aires, Luis Patti, mayor of Escobar and a former police commissioner charged with torturing criminal suspects in the early 1990s, proposed the use of armed civilian vigilantes against rising crime, and defended the use of torture or other irregular police procedures in interrogation. During a television program broadcast in August, Patti dismissed concerns about the human rights of criminals saying, "if they want their human rights respected, they should go to Costa Rica."
In August 1999, the Ministry of Interior announced a new resolution allowing police officers to shoot criminal suspects without first identifying themselves and giving the order to halt, in cases where they consider that doing so could put them or others at serious risk, a judgment left up to the officer involved. Such a move was dangerous in light of the lack of adequate training of police personnel and their knowledge that their decision to shoot to kill was unlikely to be investigated later. The resolution did not modify the existing requirement that off-duty police officers carry their regulation weapons, a requirement that led to a disproportionate number of deaths of officers, criminal suspects, and innocent bystanders when off-duty police intervened in apparent crimes.
A September 1999 incident illustrated many of the concerns relating to police procedure in Argentina. On September 16, a group of some six armed men took six hostages in a branch of the Banco Nación bank in the town of Ramallo, Buenos Aires province. Three of the hostage-takers attempted to leave the building with three hostages at 4:00 a.m., driving away in the bank manager's car. Police, who had failed to block roads or take other steps to prevent a possible escape, opened fire on the occupants of the car indiscriminately, killing two hostages and one bank robber. One of the hostages, the bank manager, was killed by a shot fired by a member of the police at point blank range after the car had come to a halt. A second bank robber, taken to the local police station, was found hanged in his cell some twelve hours later. No one admitted to having given the order to fire, and no one was able to explain the many errors made by police.
Some police officers involved in the events attributed the bloodshed to the fact that they had never received any training in how to react in a hostage situation. Governor Duhalde, who described the events as "a massacre," suspended three chief commissioners and disbanded the Special Operations Group (Grupo Especial de Operaciones, GEO), while all of the 150 officers involved were placed under investigation. Provincial Justice Minister Osvaldo Lorenzo resigned as a result. The investigating judge subsequently declared publicly that members of the Provincial Police were involved as accomplices in planning and carrying out the bank robbery, and had apparently provided maps of the interior of the bank and information on the contents of the safe. The case highlighted both the inefficiency and lack of training of the police forces involved, their over-eagerness to resort to lethal force even where the lives of hostages were thus endangered, and the lack of success of Governor Duhalde's previous efforts to restructure and control the Provincial Police, as well as the apparent continued involvement of police agents in criminal activities.
Accusations of torture against the Federal Police and Buenos Aires Provincial Police continued. José Luis Ojeda, who had denounced torture by the Federal Police in 1996, was shot in April 1999 by an unidentified man who warned him not to continue to speak of torture, part of a pattern of threats and attacks suffered by Ojeda over the past three years. In August, an investigation was opened in the case of a group of police officers from the first provincial police station in San Martín, accused of having tortured a group of five youths with beatings and partial asphyxiation in July. Also in August, two witnesses who testified in the case of a 1996 attack on the home of Senator Eduardo Menem alleged that the Provincial Police in Tigre had tortured them in order to force them to incriminate certain detainees in the case. In May, three provincial police officers from the fifth police station in Beccar were detained due to allegations that they had tortured a group of prisoners in late March. The public prosecutor who received the complaint, Maria Ema Prada, received telephoned death threats. While these steps to investigate violations were welcome, at this writing they had not resulted in any concrete sanctions against the officers involved.
In another blow to the Buenos Aires Provincial Police, in May a federal judge ordered the detention of six former members of that force in connection with their participation in the bombing of the Jewish community organization AMIA in 1994. Allegations of use of excessive force were not limited to criminal suspects: on September 6, the Buenos Aires Provincial Police fired rubber bullets at a group of secondary school students in La Plata celebrating the anniversary of the school, and arrested ten.
In a rare conviction of police accused of human rights violations, on May 17 the First Appeals Court in La Plata sentenced three provincial police officers to prison in connection with the August 17, 1993, disappearance of journalism student Miguel Bru, who was determined on the basis of witnesses' testimonies to have died under torture in police custody, although his body was never found. Subcommissioner Walter Abrigo and Sgt. Justo López were sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime and Commissioner Juan Domingo Ojeda and Officer Ramón Ceresetto sentenced to two years for seeking to conceal the crime. Only Abrigo was sent to prison, however, due to the length of time the others had already served before sentencing. Lopez was freed pending appeal, having served more than three years before trial. One of the witnesses, Jorge Ruarte, was fired upon three days before the trial began, and had received threats as early as December 1998.
The Federal Police and Buenos Aires Provincial Police were not the only police forces accused of brutality during the course of 1999. In La Rioja, two young men were found dead in police cells while in custody of that province's police force. On March 29, nineteen-year-old Cristián Leonardo Ruíz was found hanged in his cell at the Direction of Investigations, having apparently committed suicide using his scarf. The lawyer representing Ruíz alleged he had died under torture. The lawyer cited other detainees who stated that when Ruíz's body was found hanging in the cell, his feet were touching the ground and his knees were bent; those detainees also claimed that they had all been tortured with electric shocks and asphyxiation. The autopsy confirmed that Ruíz had been asphyxiated, and that the marks on his neck could not have been made by the scarf. Ruíz had allegedly worked for a political opponent of La Rioja Governor Angel Maza, and his death occurred shortly before internal elections to nominate gubernatorial candidates for 1999.
A second case was reported in June, when twenty-one-year-old Aldo Francisco Luna allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself with his long-sleeved shirt in the seventh police station in La Rioja, although an autopsy indicated he had died of a heart attack rather than hanging. Relatives alleged that he had been beaten in custody, and the personnel on duty at the time were placed under preventive arrest, although at this writing no action had been taken against them.
In Tucumán province, the provincial police used excessive violence to repress August and September demonstrations by public employees who were protesting the fact that they had not received their salaries for several months. Some forty people were injured in these incidents; one man later died of a heart attack. Similar repression of public sector protests occurred in Neuquén, where journalists accused provincial police of deliberately firing on them with rubber bullets when they were covering the protests on three separate occasions, in March, July, and September.
Threats and violence against journalists were less widespread in 1999 than in previous years, although disturbing incidents continued to occur. Several cases of threats and attacks on journalists were reported in Corrientes province throughout the first half of 1999 in the context of a political dispute between former governor Raúl Romero Feris and the current provincial administration. Two journalists in Mendoza were threatened by provincial police in March while covering the trial relating to the death of Sebastián Bordón, last seen in police custody; also in March, local journalist Diego Spina was beaten and threatened with death while covering the arrest of former Morón Mayor Carlos Rousselot in Greater Buenos Aires.
In April, journalist Eduardo Kimel received a suspended sentence of one year in prison and a fine of U.S. $20,000 in connection with his book The Massacre of San Patricio -about the 1976 murder of five Pallotine priests and seminarians-after former Judge Guillermo Rivarola sued him for slander over statements about his role as investigating judge in the case.
Investigations into human rights violations under the military governments that ruled from 1976 until 1983 also continued in 1999. In one case in a federal court concerning the disappearance of 2,000 people in La Plata, a former forensic expert of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police confirmed for the first time that the armed forces had made use of planes and helicopters to throw the dead or drugged bodies of disappearance victims into the Rio de la Plata, the river which runs along the Buenos Aires coast.
In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court on August 30 upheld a lower court decision that former junta member Adm. Emilio Massera must pay compensation of $120,000 in a civil lawsuit brought by Daniel Tarnapolsky regarding the 1976 disappearance of his parents and two brothers during the dictatorship. The court also ordered the state to pay $1,000,000 to Tarnapolsky. The decision could potentially affect other former high-ranking officers pardoned by President Carlos Menem or exempted from criminal trial by the Due Obedience and Full Stop laws adopted during the presidency of Raúl Alfonsín, paving the way for similar civil actions.
Defending Human Rights
Much of the ongoing investigation of past violations related to the continuing actions of nongovernmental organizations such as the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo). In March the Grandmothers demanded compulsory DNA testing in the case of a former Navy officer detained for the illegal appropriation of the child of disappeared parents, after the Grandmothers had located the child in question.
The Grandmothers also played a prominent role in the case brought by federal Judge Adolfo Bagnasco regarding over 200 missing children of disappeared families. This case was brought by the Grandmothers and CELS on the argument that there had been a systematic plan to abduct the children of disappeared prisoners and that these cases did not fall within either the 1985 juntas trial (due to lack of sufficient evidence at the time) or the later Due Obedience and Full Stop laws, but instead constituted ongoing crimes for which the statute of limitations had not run. Among the former officers placed under house arrest in the case were Gen. Jorge Videla, Adm. Emilio Massera, Gen. Cristino Nicolaides and Gen. Reynaldo Bignone, while former junta member Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri and the present governor of Tucumán, former Gen. Antonio Domingo Bussi, were also expected to be charged. Both Videla and Massera rejected the charges on the grounds that they had already been judged, while Nicolaides stated that he would have tried to stop the kidnapping of children if he had known about it, and that he recognized the legitimacy of the investigations into these cases.
The Role of the International Community
European courts continued to bring charges against former Argentine military officers regarding violations under the last dictatorship, although at this writing the Argentine authorities had not cooperated in these efforts, alleging that foreign courts lacked jurisdiction. Moreover, the Argentine government fully supported the government of Chile in its efforts to prevent the prosecution of former dictator Augusto Pinochet by Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzón. Former Gen. Guillermo Suárez Mason, head of the First Army Corps during the repression, was called to testify before the Italian courts regarding the disappearance of Italian citizens in Argentina during the 1970s, including the daughter of Grandmothers president Estela de Carloto. In March 1999, Spanish Judge Garzón accused the former dictatorship of carrying out genocide against members of the Jewish community, on the basis of information received from the Spanish human rights group Commission of Solidarity with the Relatives of the Disappeared (Comisión de Solidaridad con Familiares de Desaparecidos, CO.SO.FAM), which cited the 1,260 Jewish victims included in the CONADEP report. Garzón also received information from the Grandmothers on four children disappeared in Argentina in the context of his investigations into "Operation Condor."
New charges were also brought against Admiral Massera, including a case before a Paris court relating to the disappearance of two French nuns in 1977. Also in late March, an Argentine federal judge accused the Foreign Ministry of deliberately failing to take steps to comply with a request from a Swiss court for the extradition of Massera, in connection with the disappearance of Swiss citizen Alexis Jaccard in 1977.
Organization of American States
In May 1999 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on the Argentine government to clarify the circumstances of the 1991 death of Sergio Schiavini in a shootout with the Buenos Aires Provincial Police. In 1997, the fifteen police officers who had been charged in the case and who had also been responsible for evidence-gathering were acquitted in the Argentine courts. In March the Inter-American Commission took up the case of violations of the right of freedom of thought and expression relating to Supreme Court decisions against journalists Horacio Verbitsky and Tomás Sanz. In September, the commission received a petition regarding the 1994 terrorist attack on the AMIA in which eighty-six died, calling on the government to explain apparent negligence in both preventive measures and subsequent investigations, which could have amounted to violations to the right to life and to justice.
In his first report, published in April, the Inter-American Commission's special rapporteur on freedom of expression expressed concern about a number of Supreme Court decisions in Argentina that limited freedom of expression, including the case of journalist Eduardo Kimel.
In May, the Argentine government failed to comply with the period set by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to pay compensation to the relatives of Adolfo Garrido and Raúl Baigorria, both disappeared by the Mendoza Provincial Police in 1990.
The U.S. Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998 accurately described the human rights situation in Argentina.