Interview with Pablo Parenti on the ESMA trials in Argentina


ICTJ interview with Pablo Parenti, of the Attorney General’s Unit for coordination and monitoring cases involving violations of human rights during the Argentine dictatorship.

Q: Why is the Naval Mechanics School, or ESMA, the subject of trials in Argentina today?

A: The ESMA was used as a secret detention center—one of many that existed in Argentina during the dictatorship, and one of the largest. It is estimated that 5,000 people were detained there. The ESMA case is being investigated and tried along with cases from many other secret detention centers in different provinces throughout the country.

The ESMA detention center was known about during the dictatorship, thanks to survivors who made statements in those years, so this is a trial with international repercussions. But while it is a very important trial, it is just one of many going on in Argentina at the moment.

Q: The military dictatorship ended in 1983 but it wasn’t until 2005 that the laws protecting the military from prosecution were annulled. What has happened in the Argentine criminal justice system since 2005?

A: Before leaving in 1983, the military regime passed the Self-Amnesty Law to protect themselves from prosecution. That law was annulled in 1984, and following that annulment there were some trials—the most well-known is the Trial of the Commanders. But then laws were passed that limited trials during the democratic period—the Full Stop Law, the Due Obedience Law, and presidential pardons. These impunity laws were annulled beginning in 2001, and in 2005 the Argentine Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional since they violated the obligation to prosecute those types of crimes.

Also beginning in 2001, lawsuits gradually started to be re-opened; courts, judges, and prosecutors all over the country started intervening, making it necessary to develop a strategy to give some consistency to the process.

This is something we’ve been trying to do in the Attorney General’s Unit that I coordinate from within the Public Ministry, created in 2007. We attempt to monitor the lawsuits closely and impart some logic to the course of justice.

Q: How would you assess the legal strategy of the Attorney General’s Unit since 2007?

A: The justice process currently underway in Argentina is very ambitious. The challenge is to prosecute an enormous quantity of crimes committed throughout the country, and we are trying to judge all the crimes that occurred during the dictatorship, not just particular acts.

Furthermore, this is occurring in the same courts responsible for investigating other types of crimes. Argentina chose not to create special tribunals to judge these types of crimes, which has been important because it grants these trials unquestionable legitimacy; special tribunals can always be suspected of bias.

But this also presupposes the additional difficulty of involving a large number of legal figures in trials taking place all over the country; managing that is no simple task. Our basic goal at the Attorney General’s Unit is to concentrate the investigations by common denominators. For example, all the acts committed in the same detention center would be investigated in a single inquiry, and this inquiry would produce one trial. This method obviously has its strengths and weaknesses, and these trials showcase the best and the worst of the justice system.

We even uncover cases within the justice system itself, civil servants within the justice system who were implicated in crimes through their legal role in the dictatorship years. For example, as we speak, the Judicial Council is formally removing a judge, a member of the Court of Appeal in Mendoza, who was tried for crimes against humanity for his judicial role during the dictatorship but has continued to act as a judge until now.

Q: What does it mean for Argentine society, especially for the victims, to see the perpetrators of these crimes sentenced after so many years?

A: This is a response victims hoped for, a response that the state should have taken earlier but that due to political circumstances couldn’t take at the time. These trials are also taking place thanks to the efforts of the victims themselves, so it is a process that is generally viewed with satisfaction and with a sense of reparation. Had the transition process ended with impunity, it would be the victory of those who committed the worst atrocities.

The current process is not going to bring many perpetrators to trial—many of them are dead, many are not going to be identified. But nowadays, the courts are working and all the evidence we recover we immediately submit to the authorities. It’s an era of open trials and courts working to expose and try the horror that took place in Argentina, which is very important for society.

Q: What other measures should be taken, beyond criminal trials, to ensure the non-repetition of human rights violations?

A: Truly, if only we could ensure non-repetition—if humanity got to that point once, it can get there again. These trials are important for that very reason, for exposing the truth so people know what the horror was like, know what society is capable of doing.

Beyond that, we should point out that Argentina has had a fairly broad policy of reparations, not only economic ones but also many places dedicated to remembrance. For the last few years the state is unquestionably committed to remembrance and reparation; this is something you see on the day-to-day agenda of the government. The trials are not isolated events; they fit into the whole policy of remembrance and reparation to the victims.

Q: What lessons can we draw from the Argentine case that might be useful for other countries in similar situations?

A: On the one hand the Argentine case is an emblem of what horror was. The crime of disappearances became known around the world because of the Argentine experience. But Argentina was also a prototype of attempts to achieve justice. As soon as the dictatorship fell, Argentina put the accused on trial; the Trial of the Junta was known around the world.

And following the resurgence of presidential pardons and laws limiting trials, Argentina also showed it is possible to go back over impunity, and overcome it. Other countries are going through similar experiences, struggling against the trap impunity laws pose for the workings of justice.

The Argentine example is also very important as a clear example of how these trials can be held without social trauma—the democratic system is not at risk; on the contrary, these trials have been a founding experience here, a new phase for democracy. You don’t have to make political compromises for justice to be done. Justice must be done because that’s what’s supposed to happen; the trials themselves demonstrate their own legitimacy and have a lasting impact on society.

Original interview conducted in Spanish.