A belated reckoning


WEB DESK: An Argentinian federal court has sentenced the country’s last military dictator, 88-year-old General Reynaldo Bignone, to 20 years imprisonment for kidnapping and ‘disappearing’ more than 100 people during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Of this period, Bignone was himself holding absolute power in 1982-1983. The General is already serving life sentences for multiple human rights violations during that dark period. In the landmark trial, 14 other former military officers were sentenced to between eight and 25 years imprisonment for criminal association, kidnapping and torture. Many of them are also serving prison sentences already.

They include one Uruguayan former Colonel, Manuel Cordero Piacentini, who tortured prisoners inside Automotores Orletti, the Buenos Aires repair shop where many captured leftists were ‘interrogated’ under orders from their home countries. One other defendant was convicted on charges separate from the larger case, involving a different set of victims.

Two other accused were absolved of similar charges against them. The unprecedented court verdict after a trial lasting three years in which the four-member judges’ bench received testimony from about 370 witnesses, ruled that Operation Condor was a criminal conspiracy to kidnap and forcibly disappear people across international borders. The covert operation was launched in the 1970s by six South American military dictatorships that used their secret police and intelligence networks in a co-ordinated effort to track down and eliminate their opponents abroad.

Most of those disappeared, tortured and killed were leftists who had sought refuge from brutal repression at home in neighbouring countries and further abroad. The sentences are seen as a milestone because they mark the first time a court has proved that Operation Condor was an international criminal conspiracy by the US-backed regimes in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The investigation into the affair was launched in the 1990s when an amnesty law still protected many of the accused. Argentina’s Supreme Court overturned the amnesty in 2005 at the urging of then President Nestor Kirchner. It has taken 40 years after Operation Condor was formally founded and 16 years since the judicial investigation began to deliver justice to some of the victims of Latin America’s past military dictatorships. During this protracted process, several defendants either died or were removed from the judicial process.

Their victims reflected conflicted and bitter feelings about the verdict. Since the bodies of many victims have never been found, Argentine prosecutors argued that the crime of covering up their deaths continues to date and therefore statutory time limits do not apply. A key piece of evidence in the case was a declassified FBI agent’s cable sent in 1976 that described in detail the conspiracy to share intelligence and eliminate leftists across South America. Operation Condor, which started in 1968 and was officially implemented in 1975 by the right-wing dictatorships of the Southern Cone of South America.

Augusto Pinochet of Chile was the most brutal military dictator among them, who had come to power through a bloody US-backed coup in 1973, during which elected Marxist President Salvador Allende went down fighting. Pinochet enlisted the other military dictators in the six countries named above for the conspiracy. Peru and Ecuador joined later. The outreach of Operation Condor did not even spare Chilean former ambassador Orlando Letelier and his US aide Ronnie Moffitt who were assassinated in Washington D.C. in September 1976 by Chilean agents involved in Operation Condor.

Condor agents tracked other political exiles across Europe to eliminate them. South American military governments in the 1970s and 1980s kidnapped, tortured and murdered thousands of rebel guerrillas and dissidents. The victims spanned the spectrum from the revolutionary left to democratic dissidents. Of these thousands, at least 377 of those who fell victim to Operation Condor’s tender mercies have been accounted for. This is obviously the small tip of a very large iceberg.

But at least an important legal precedent has now been set by the verdict that lays down that there is no bar on bringing to justice those responsible for such heinous crimes, no matter how long it takes. Argentina has taken the lead in carrying out scores of trials over the last decade in which at least 666 accused have been convicted of such crimes during Argentina’s “dirty war” of the 1970s and 1980s.

In other South American countries, however, efforts to bring such violators of human rights to justice have sputtered. Francesca Lessa, a researcher at Oxford University’s Latin American Centre who has closely watched the trial, argues that prosecutors in the Operation Condor case “broke new ground in accountability” by successfully pursuing crimes beyond Argentina’s borders. The case serves as a warning to all the perpetrators of these crimes that they cannot rest sanguine.

It now appears that with this legal precedent, sooner or later the justice system will catch up with them. While Latin Americans generally, and the victims and their families have reason for satisfaction and even rejoicing, spare a thought for a large number of political dissidents who have disappeared in Pakistan over the last one and a half decades. The greater number of these belong to Balochistan, where an insurgency is ongoing. But such disappearances have also been reported in Sindh, including Karachi. Enforced disappearances and tortured and bullet-riddled bodies dumped all over these areas first emerged during General Pervez Musharraf’s nine-year military dictatorship.

To date, the efforts of human rights defendants and the courts, including the august Supreme Court, have failed to account for those still missing or bring the perpetrators of the crime of torturing, killing and dumping bodies to justice. Compared to the South American example therefore, we are still stuck in the 1970s as far as accountability for such serious crimes is concerned.

Apart from being horrendous violations of human, legal and political rights in a democratic system, such practices serve only to deepen hatred against the state’s authority, legitimacy and writ. They therefore end up exacerbating the very problem they set out to resolve. As for our military dictators of the past, none has been held accountable or brought to justice for the overthrow of the constitutional order (constituting treason under Article 6 of the constitution) or for their actions while in power.

Our first military dictator, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, was removed by another military coup in the face of a countrywide agitation against his 10-year rule and allowed to retire and pass away peacefully in his time. His successor, General Yahya Khan, having launched the ill-fated genocidal crackdown in East Pakistan to deny Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and his Awami League the electoral mandate they had received in the 1970 elections, ended up so isolating Pakistan internationally that when India intervened and our defeat followed, not a sound of sympathetic protest was heard from any corner of the world.

He too was removed by an ‘internal’ military coup and put out to pasture. General Ziaul Haq met his maker in the 1988 aircraft crash, and therefore escaped too the process of accountability. Last but not least, General Musharraf, having been ousted from power in the obtaining balance of political and other forces after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007 and the 2008 elections that followed, was allowed to depart for more salubrious foreign climes.

However, hubris persuaded the General to abandon his comfortable and lucrative lecture tour life and return to Pakistan under the illusion that he had enormous support. What followed was even more farcical. The PML-N government’s quixotic attempt to bring him to justice ended up finally with the dictator departing again on medical grounds, with the fate of his treason trial as that of the assassinations of Nawab Akbar Bugti and Benazir Bhutto being consigned to oblivion.

Pakistan clearly has a long way to go before it can even begin to emulate the South American example. rashed.rehman1@gmail.com – Business Recorder

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