On August 28, the trial of two retired generals ended, with both condemned to prison for the rest of their lives for crimes against humanity, committed while they formed part of the military regime that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983.
Antonio Domingo Bussi and his colleague Luciano Benjamín Menéndez were convicted of kidnapping, torturing and murdering a senator, Guillermo Vargas Aignasse, who disappeared on the day of the military coup – March 24, 1976. The military’s story was that he was later released, but his familiy never saw him again.
Argentina stands out among its southern cone neighbours as the only country that has successfully brought former military rulers – who together were responsible for the extra-judicial imprisonment, torture and execution of tens of thousands of Argentines – to trial for crimes against humanity. At the moment, there are 1,200 cases related to human rights abuse during the dictatorship before the courts. These trials are thought to involve just over 1000 people. There are 403 people under arrest for the alleged crimes, 336 of these are in custody and 67 on bail. Some 28 ex-represors have been sentenced and are in jail, while 55 are on the run. But the trials are not universality supported and for many Argentines, they don’t really represent the closing of this ugly historical chapter as much as the re-opening of old wounds.
The trial was partially televised. Watching the two watery-eyed, white-haired old men read their personal testimonies – filled with indignation at what they call illegitimate and politically-motivated trials – was certainly an emotionally confusing experience. Bussi, whose lawyers had tried to declare him unfit to stand trial due to illness, spoke with plastic oxygen tubes attached to his nose and wept as he denied ever having laid eyes on Vargas Aignasse. Part of me wanted to feel sorry for these pathetic, wicked old men, with their sad old bodies and ill-spent lives. But the words they read recalled clearly that in the vigour of youth, these men used their power to stamp out the lives of others who thought differently from them. They showed no signs of regret, resisting with every last breath the moral meaning of what they had done, and the consequences the dictatorship had for the country.
Menéndez told the court “Argentina flaunts the dubious merit of being the first country in history to judge its victorious soldiers,” he said. “They call the operations of the armed forces illegal repression.”
The wicked old men were not without their supporters. In one particularly action-packed (and televised) moment, when Bussi’s sentence was announced, prominent pro-military activist Cecilia Pando lept to her feet and started screeching, making throat-cutting gestures and swearing at Argentina’s secretary for human rights, also present, declaring that she would kill him with her own hands.
Pando later said she regretted her outburst, but objected, “They are trying them under the penal code when they should be trying them under the laws of war.” She has also argued that there can be no justice while only the ex-military are tried, and not those involved in the guerrilla movements that committed deadly acts of terrorism during the 1970s. Many share this view, while others argue that ex-terrorists and ex-statesmen cannot be held to the same standards. This view holds that state terrorism unleashed against the people is in a class of its own and is a crime against humanity, and what the terrorists did was not of the same magnitude in kind nor death toll. Pando singled out Human Rights Secretary Eduardo Luis Duhalde for his history as a left-wing activist during the ’70s.
The judges relied in part on jurisprudence generated at the Nuremburg trials, which condemned members of Hiler’s Nazi regime for crimes against humanity. The court declared:
“The implementation of a systematic plan, consisting of kidnapping, torture, clandestine detention, elimination and the hiding of corpses – all with a view to ensuring the impunity of the perpetrators – has been proven.”
The court decided the two were guilty of crimes against humanity, though not of genocide. There are some in Argentina who believe the Dirty War, which saw some 30,000 Argentines forcibly “disappeared” and their bodies disposed of clandestinely, does indeed qualify as genocide. While no ethnic group or class was targeted, they argue that the generals’ plan was a sort of “ideological cleansing” designed to rid Argentina of certain modes of thought or ideology that the generals deemed “subversive.”
The sentence was greeted with cheers from human rights activists, but some protested violently at the house arrest sentence received by Bussi in light of his age (he is 82). Menéndez (who is 81, but in better shape than his colleague) will stay in the jail where he is already imprisoned for separate human rights violations.