Decades After Dictatorship, Argentina's Courts Still Lead the Fight for Accountability


Argentina’s trials for crimes committed during the dictatorship of military juntas are widely seen as a successful national effort to seek accountability for past abuses. And while victims’ demands for justice continue to remain high, the judiciary is facing challenges to ensure the cases are dealt with expeditiously and fairly. At the same time, the harrowing evidence presented during trials seems to be getting increasingly less attention in the public discourse.

The 1983 collapse of Argentina's military dictatorship ended a dark chapter of terror, torture and kidnappings. It its wake, thousands of victims demanded justice. Argentina successfully established criminal trials and truth seeking mechanisms to seek accountability for widespread abuses, and to establish the truth about disappearances of more than 30,000 people.

In a interview for ICTJ's Spanish podcast series "Lessons from Latin America," Mirna Goransky, Assistant General Prosecutor for the Attorney General’s Office shares her perspectives on human rights trials in Argentina. Below is an excerpt of the transcript.

*(Listen to the podcast in Spanish)

Argentina was a transitional justice pioneer not just for the region, but for the world. Between 1976 and 1983, thousands of people were tortured, murdered and disappeared. In 1983, Argentina established a truth commission to shed light on the crimes committed during the military dictatorship. What led to the decision to create a truth commission?

The decision to create a truth commission came about because the outcry from society was huge. It was a way of collecting information that was largely unknown, or at least thought to be unknown. The truth commission was the first attempt to organize information that existed and to give people a place to file complaints. In our trials today we still use the criminal reports filed at that time as evidence because they are valuable. Thirty years later, the witnesses’ memory may be thirty years old, but all those criminal reports stay fresh.

The main leaders of the regime were sentenced in the famous trials of the Juntas. However, the trials came to a halt when the Punto Final (End Point) law and the Obediencia Debida (Due Obedience) law were passed, which protected the military from lawsuits. So it wasn’t until 2005 that the amnesty laws were declared unconstitutional, opening the door for cases to be brought against the military. Can you give us a sense of how those cases are proceeding and what they have meant for Argentine society?

The cases were re-opened in 2003, but the trials didn’t begin until 2006. Since then, the Argentine federal justice system has been devoted to making headway on trials for human rights violations during the dictatorship, and the justice system is still busy carrying out these trials. Argentina doesn’t have a statute of limitations on cases dealing with crimes against humanity, so the courts will continue with the trials until the last of the accused dies. However, there are statutes of limitations on all other cases of serious crimes, for example, corruption among civil servants. As a result, there many things still happening in Argentina that don’t make it to trial because they expire. This dynamic, I think, is one of the problems posed by these trials for the judiciary. One could say, “Well, we should set up more courts to take care of it.” But things aren’t that easy.

Does Argentine society follow these trials closely?

I can’t really speak about what’s happening in the rest of the country because that would mean speaking of trials that are taking place in all the provinces of Argentina, where I know trial conditions are different. But in Buenos Aires, we just finished a trial that was almost twenty-two months long, but it wasn’t a trial that people paid attention to. The public only came to a few hearings, and the media covered the trial on very few occasions. For the ESMA trial, the media did pay attention at some points. At the beginning there were many well-known faces among the accused, like Astiz and Acosta. But at this point, Argentines know about the concentration camps, the torture and disappearances. They know how bodies were disposed of by the Death Flights or in mass graves. Given the violent nature of the past, it can make it especially difficult to hear this sort of testimony. I remember going to the trial of the Juntas when I was fairly young, and I had to walk out. I was listening to someone’s testimony for a while, but I couldn’t stand it anymore and I had to walk out.

And after ESMA, there are still many more cases to come. What are some of the challenges facing the Prosecutor’s Office?

The Prosecutor’s Office has two very important cases going on. The first is the ESMA, which is not finished. The trial only involved 18 accused for 86 cases; and the case of Operation Condor, which hasn’t gone to trial yet. In the ESMA case there are still over 40 defendants yet to go to trial, close to 800 cases. So the great challenge we have in the Prosecutor’s Office involves trying to find a way to be more efficient and rational, to design and set up these cases so that all the defendants will finally get a judgment.

One of the goals of the Chamber of Criminal Cassation is to speed up these trials for crimes against humanity. What would that strategy involve?

All the institutions involved with the criminal justice system are trying to figure out how to organize themselves, make the most of resources available, and try to cut down on the bureaucracy of the system. As a prosecutor, the most important thing for us is to ensure that the same rules are being applied to the people who are being tried, and just because certain trials are conducted faster, it doesn’t mean they’re going to have different rules.

What lessons can we draw from the case of Argentina that might be helpful for other countries that are starting transition processes now?

I believe that if there is a lesson, it’s that things aren’t forgotten. The demand for justice by the victims and their relatives is very great, and it must be met. I believe the experience of the lengthiness of these trials in Argentina and the enormous efforts they require means there are two lessons: there must be trials, but they also must be done properly. Considering that we have an inquisitorial culture going back two or three hundred years where things only change to a very small degree, you can see it’s a really hard task.

*Photo courtesy of CIJ