Dozens of ex-military officials convicted or accused of committing crimes against humanity during the 1976-83 dictatorship have been granted house arrest this year, prompting concern that this reflects a broader shift in human rights policy under President Mauricio Macri.
Last month, human rights groups gathered to protest in La Plata after a local court granted house arrest to Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz on the basis on his age and health. Etchecolatz, who is now 87, was the police chief of Buenos Aires Province during the 1976-83 military dictatorship and the right-hand man of the General Ramón Camps. He is currently serving a life sentence after being convicted six times in human rights trials covering the dictatorship era.
Etchecolatz is one of dozens of perpetrators of crimes under the last dictatorship who have applied for, and been granted in some cases, house arrest this year. The decision is grounded in the legal basis that those who are over 70 years old and in ill health can be moved to house arrest at the court’s discretion. According to Clarín, at least 50 former police and military officials have been released from common prisons and placed under house arrest under this rationale since President Mauricio Macri came into power last December. The increase in these rulings has raised questions over the rights of those convicted for crimes against humanity.
The Etchecolatz case is especially sensitive as it came just before the tenth anniversary of the second disappearance of Jorge Julio López, a key witness in the trial against Etchecolatz.
López was one of thousands who were kidnapped and tortured under the junta, and testified in court during the 2006 trial. He confirmed that he had been kidnapped in October 1976, been tortured by Etchecolatz while being held in police station 8 of La Plata, and recounted how he saw Patricia Dell Orto and her husband Ambrosio De Marco being shot in the head. On 18th September 2006, on his way to give evidence against his former torturer for a final time, López disappeared. He has never been found, and many human rights group suspect Etchecolatz was again behind his kidnapping.
Emanuel Lovelli, a lawyer for the Abuelas de Plaza Mayo human rights organisation, spoke out against the decision. “There is not a health reason which justifies moving Etchecolatz to house arrest, and someone like Etchecolatz, who could potentially be considered one of the most emblematic figures of the dictatorship in Buenos Aires, should not be allowed to go under house arrest. Moreover, there are investigations looking into whether Etchecolatz’s medical records had been falsified due to inconsistencies in the measurements of his weight, leading to a judge authorising a raid of the hospital in Ezeiza where the records were kept. As a result, the verdict on whether he can go under house arrest has had to be postponed until this claim is resolved.”
Lovelli highlighted that whilst he believed that human rights abusers have rights “when we are talking about these people, we are talking about state criminals, similar to other totalitarian regimes. The rule of law has to regulate the due process of law, and human rights, and the state has to repair what the terrorist state did and also be fair when distributing the responsibility.”
Lovelli’s stance is shared by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel who was awarded the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize. Pérez Esquivel was held and tortured by the police during the dictatorship. He has stated that he is completely against Etchecolatz and other perpetrators being moved to house arrest. “We have to treat them with humanity, give them what they need but only within the confines of prison and not under house arrest,” he said in a radio interview.
Questions have also been raised over the implementation and enforcement of restrictions under house arrest. Ex-commodore Luis Trillo, who was under house arrest while facing trial for crimes against humanity, was seen walking his dog in the street in Buenos Aires. Trillo was returned to prison, but as in several other cases, it was only because human rights activists reported that he had broken the terms of his confinement that the decision to grant him house arrest was revoked.
A soft change in policy?
Argentina is widely considered a global pioneer in truth and reconciliation for the way it has dealt with the key figures from the last dictatorship and perpetrators of human rights abuses. Since 2006, dozens of trials have taken place and hundreds of key figures from the junta have been imprisoned. The underlying question is whether human rights issues from the last dictatorship are being dealt with in a different way by the new government.
The increase now in the number ex-perpetrators being released under house arrest has led many believe the Macri’s government is moving away from the policy of recent years, in which “memory, truth, and justice” for victims of the last dictatorship became a key pillar of the human rights policy.
On 12th September, a group of human rights and social group released a joint declaration expressing concern over the “inertia” of the three branches of government when it comes to investigating the dictatorship era.
“The barriers to advancing with the investigation and trials of crimes against humanity are getting higher, creating a worrying situation over the impunity for civilian participants in this genocidal dictatorship and for all those guilty that have not yet received justice and punishment,” reads the statement.
Part of this criticism is directed at the head of state. In a recent interview with Buzzfeed, President Macri said that he did not know whether the number of people disappeared people during the military dictatorship was “9,000 or 30,000”. Human rights groups have called this alarming as it is the first time that the generally agreed figure of 30,000 has been called into question in mainstream political discourse; usually it is done by sympathisers of the junta. Pérez Esquivel said it was serious that the president of the nation has chosen to ignore the number of disappeared and called it a “setback” in human rights policy.
In the same interview, Macri used the term “Dirty War” to refer to the last dictatorship, one that has been term widely rejected, as terrorism by the state, using its full apparatus to perpetrate crimes against humanity is considered a criminal act, not something that can be justified under the term “war”.
The president also appears to be forging closer ties with the military. On the Day of the Military in May he expressed that the state had neglected the armed forces and announced a raise in their salary and recognised retired members who had had their assets accidentally liquidated. The following month he revoked a 1983 decree put in place by former president Raúl Alfonsín, handing power back over to the military on personnel issues, a move human rights organisations see as a step closer to the policies of the military dictatorship as the original decree’s purpose was to limit the power of the military.
These remarks and gestures have not gone unnoticed, and during a press conference with the Secretary of Human Rights, the government was accused of encouraging judicial decisions in favour of the repressors. José Cruz Campagnoli, the president of the Human Rights Commission of the Argentine Legislature, said that the government was “encouraging a policy of diluting judgement and not appealing house arrest as part of that plan”.
Despite this, the government has appealed against the house arrest of Etchecolatz, and insisted that it will continue to seek justice for the dictatorship crimes. Human Rights Secretary Claudio Avruj said he is in favour of house arrest for those that fit the criteria, but that it should not be granted to Etchecolatz as his health reasons did not meet the requirements.
Human rights organisations have noticed a “change in the air” in the way human rights are dealt with in face of the comments made by Macri and the apparent shift in court rulings in favour of the ex-military repressors. It remains to be seen whether more of these perpetrators, who took the lives and freedoms of so many, will be released to have a better life of their own.