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Uruguay: Plebiscite Undermines Justice

But Recent Court Rulings Move Towards Accountability over Dictatorship Era

(Washington, DC) - Uruguayan voters' rejection of a move to annul the country's amnesty law could hamper efforts to promote justice over crimes committed during the country's military dictatorship (1973-1985), despite recent important rulings to help bring accountability for that era, Human Rights Watch said today.

"We applaud the recent judicial rulings, which are huge steps toward accountability for abuses committed during that dark period of Uruguayan history, and urge the judiciary to continue down this road," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. 

On October 19, 2009, the Uruguayan Supreme Court held that the Law on the Expiration of the Punitive Claims of the State of 1986, which excludes police and military personnel from prosecution for crimes committed during the dictatorship, is unconstitutional.  The court's decision, though, is only applicable to the case under review, involving the death of a young woman in military installations in 1974. 

Since the amnesty law grants the executive the power to decide the cases to which it should be applied, courts are currently investigating and prosecuting officials whom the administration of Tabare Vazquez, president for the last five years, excluded from the scope of the law.  On October 22, a court sentenced the former dictator Gregorio "Goyo" Alvarez to 25 years in prison for the death of 37 people who were "disappeared" during the dictatorship, and a marine to 20 years in prison for killing 29 people under similar circumstances.

In the election on October 25, which included a presidential election, almost 53 percent of Uruguayans rejected the proposal to reform the Constitution to revisit the amnesty legislation. That would have allowed the government to annul the law and reopen all cases of alleged abuses committed during the dictatorship. 

Without the reform, courts will have to make determinations on a case-by-case basis and they cannot reopen several cases in which the Supreme Court has already ruled that the amnesty law was constitutional.

"The plebiscite results are disappointing, but let's not forget that accountability is not a popularity contest that should be decided by majorities," said Vivanco. "Uruguay has an international legal obligation to investigate, prosecute, and try those responsible for heinous crimes, and the courts should continue to prosecute appropriate cases."

Under international law, governments have an obligation to provide victims of human rights abuses with an effective remedy - including justice, truth, and adequate reparations - after they suffer a violation. International human rights bodies have repeatedly held that the Uruguayan amnesty law is incompatible with such obligation.

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