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Events of 2009

Argentina has made significant progress in prosecuting military and police personnel responsible for "disappearances," killings, and torture during the country's "dirty war." Despite delays in judicial proceedings, 44 officials have been convicted for committing abuses since Congress annulled the amnesty laws of the 1980s.

An important challenge that Argentina faces today is modifying its laws to comply with its international obligations to protect and promote freedom of expression. In 2009 Congress approved legislative proposals submitted by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to decriminalize defamation, and to regulate TV and radio. But there is no access to information law or federal-level guidelines on allocating official advertising.

Continuing human rights problems in Argentina include deplorable prison conditions, and arbitrary restrictions on women's reproductive rights.

Confronting Past Abuses

Several important cases of abuses committed during Argentina's last military dictatorship (1976-83) were reopened in 2003 after Congress annulled the 1986 "Full Stop" law, which forced a halt to the prosecution of all such cases, and the 1987 "Due Obedience" law, which granted automatic immunity in such cases to all members of the military, except those in positions of command. In June 2005 the Supreme Court declared the laws unconstitutional. In addition, since 2005 several federal judges have struck down pardons decreed by then-president Carlos Menem in 1989-90 of former officials convicted or facing trial for human rights violations.

As of July 2009, 588 people faced charges for these crimes. Since the amnesty laws were annulled, 44 people have been convicted. In March 2009, for example, a court in San Luis sentenced two former military personnel and three former policemen to life imprisonment for killing a woman, torturing a man, and two enforced disappearances in 1976. In July 2009 two former prison officers were each sentenced in Misiones to over 20 years in prison for torturing a political prisoner in 1976.

Delay in judicial processes undermines accountability, however. According to the Center for Legal and Social Studies, 193 people implicated in crimes committed during the dictatorship died before being brought to justice. An important reason for the delay was that several complex cases were on the docket to be heard by the same tribunal in the city of Buenos Aires. In March 2009 some cases were redistributed to other tribunals.

The security of witnesses in human rights trials has become a serious concern since the "disappearance" in September 2006 of a torture victim who had testified in one of the cases that concluded that year. Jorge Julio López, age 77, who vanished from his home in La Plata the day before he was due to attend one of the final days of the trial, remains missing.

Freedom of Expression and Information

In September 2009 President Kirchner presented draft legislation on TV and radio regulation that attempted to limit the ability of media corporations to own large portions of the radio frequency spectrum so as to promote diversity of comment and debate. But it also contained problematic provisions, such as the creation of an implementing body that would report directly to the executive's chief of staff. Congress approved an improved version of the bill in October. The new law, however, creates an implementing body with a diverse composition, but without complete autonomy, and contains vague definitions of what "faults" could lead to sanctions such as the expiry of broadcasting licenses. It also fails to acknowledge the need to have mechanisms available for those who currently own more licenses than allowed by law, and who might need to request compensation if they prove that the anti-trust measures in the law caused them economic damages.

In May 2008 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Argentina had violated Eduardo Kimel's right to free expression when a court sentenced him in 1995 to one year in prison (the sentence was suspended) and ordered him to pay 20,000 pesos (US$20,000 at that time) in damages for defamation. Kimel had criticized the work of a judge investigating a massacre committed during the last military government. To comply with the Inter-American Court ruling, in September 2009 President Kirchner sent a legislative proposal to Congress to decriminalize defamation, which was approved in November.

Without clear pre-established criteria for allocating official advertising at the federal level and in some provinces, there is an increased risk of discrimination in the distribution of official advertising by rewarding local media that provide favorable coverage and punishing those with a critical editorial line. In a case against the provincial government of Neuquen, in September 2007 the Supreme Court held that although there is no right to receive official advertising, a government that grants it may not apply discriminatory criteria in granting or withdrawing it. Several bills to regulate the matter remain pending.

An executive decree allows Argentine citizens to obtain information held by the federal executive branch. However, bills giving Argentine citizens the right to information held by all federal offices have been pending before Congress for years. (Some provinces have access to information laws that allow individuals to obtain information from provincial governments.)

Criminal Justice System

In detention facilities overcrowding, abuses by guards, and inmate violence continue to be serious problems. In a landmark ruling in May 2005 the Supreme Court declared that all prisons in the country must abide by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

The situation in the province of Buenos Aires remains critical. During 2006-07 there was a small reduction in the number of detainees held in police lockups, which absorb the overflow from the prison system. Yet the Center for Legal and Social Studies documented that, as of March 2009, the overpopulation in provincial prisons was at 26 percent, rising to 47 percent when taking into account prisoners held in police stations. Nearly 77 percent of prisoners are in pretrial detention, one of the main causes of overcrowding.

Children in conflict with the law who are under age 16 are subject to a procedure that lacks basic due process safeguards and provides judges broad discretion to authorize their detention. In cases where they are accused of having committed a crime, and when they are subjected to a custodial or protective measure because of their "personal or social situation," judges routinely order children to be institutionalized. In December 2008 the Supreme Court rejected a habeas corpus petition to set free dozens of detained children, but stated that the juvenile justice system violates Argentina's international obligations. At this writing a legislative proposal to modify this system in compliance with international human rights standards is pending before the Senate.

Impunity for the 1994 AMIA Bombing

To date, no one has been convicted for the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Argentine Mutual Association in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people died and over 300 were injured. In 2004 a court acquitted men accused of participating in the attack when it declared all evidence gathered during the investigation inadmissible because the judge in charge of the investigation had bribed a suspect. The judge was impeached one year later. In May 2009 the Supreme Court held that evidence gathered during the original investigation prior to October 31, 1995 (the date on which the judge bribed the suspect), was valid and could be used to investigate the suspect's participation in the bombing and other related crimes. Additionally, in October 2009 a federal judge accused former President Menem and other former high officials of a cover-up for interfering with the judicial investigation into the attack.

In October 2006 an Argentine special prosecutor accused Iran of planning the attack, and Hezbollah of carrying it out. In November 2006 a federal judge issued an international warrant for the arrest of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and eight other Iranian former officials. A year later, the Interpol General Assembly voted to issue six arrest notices, and in September 2009 President Kirchner reiterated before the UN General Assembly the Argentine government's request that Iran collaborate with the Argentine justice system. In June 2009 a federal judge ordered the capture of a Colombian citizen accused of coordinating a Hezbollah cell that allegedly carried out the bombing.

Reproductive Rights

Women and girls in Argentina face arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on their reproductive decisions and access to contraceptives, especially emergency contraceptive pills. Therapeutic abortions and abortions for rape victims are legal, but women continue to face obstacles even when their right to an abortion is protected by law. In May 2009 Santa Fe was the first province to adopt comprehensive guidelines to assist health professionals to conduct legal abortions. The guidelines, which follow international human rights standards and the World Health Organization's recommendations for safe abortion, were elaborated by the federal Ministry of Health in 2007.

Key International Actors

Argentina has actively promoted international resolutions to curb impunity for abuses. Its efforts led to a 2008 UN Human Rights Council resolution recognizing the importance of the right to truth, encouraging states to implement the recommendations of non-judicial bodies (such as truth and reconciliation commissions), and to establish specific mechanisms to complement the justice system to investigate gross human rights violations. The Organization of American States Permanent Council adopted a similar resolution in May 2009.

In March 2009 the UN Human Rights Council approved another resolution proposed by Argentina, which encourages states to use forensic genetics to contribute to identifying remains of abuse victims, and to restore the identity of individuals who were separated from their families, including those taken away when they were children.