Sunday, September 17, 2006

Day Of Pencils Remembered In Argentina

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Argentina marks 30 years Saturday since the military operation known as the Night of the Pencils, when the military kidnapped and disappeared 20 high school students from the city of La Plata as part of a plan to get rid of political dissidents during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Witnesses say the students were then taken to a detention and torture facility that has been a site of contention for many years. Human rights groups say that the Buenos Aires Governor wants to prevent human rights organizations from holding a vigil on Saturday for the disappeared at the former clandestine detention center. Marie Trigona reports from Buenos Aires


Seven of the students kidnapped during the Night of the Pencils were taken to the secret detention facility known as Pozo de Banfield, in a southern Buenos Aires suburb 30 kilometers from the capital. Until this past year police used the Pozo de Banfield as a police precinct for homicide cases. For nearly 10 years human rights groups have fought to remove the police from the building. Ex-detainees hoped that no one would be detained again in the Pozo de Banfield’s windowless cement 4 square foot cells in the building’s basement. Human rights groups say the building was simply handed over to new authorities to continue with state-supported repression against the poor. This year, they were successful in their demands to close the Pozo de Banfield facility. The police were ordered to move August 17.

Governor Felipé Solá announced this week he was to hold a government rally at the same time and place that human rights groups had planned the vigil. Adriana Calvo, ex-detainee at the Pozo de Banfield and torture survivor says police were removed from the detention center thanks to the work of human rights activists. She was detained in 1977. During her six years of detention, she witnessed numerous cases of tortures of pregnant women and prisoners.

“Human rights groups for months have been organizing the vigil and rally in front of the former clandestine detention center to mark 30 years since the military kidnapped of 20 high school students from La Plata, a day that is known as Night of the Pencils. Some of those students were seen for the last time at the Pozo de Banfield. The Pozo de Banfield is a symbol of the Night of the Pencils.”

Only one student, Pablo Díaz, from the Night of the Pencils survived to tell the story of his fellow students. At least 200 of Argentina's 30,000 disappeared were murdered at the Pozo de Banfield detention center between 1976-1983. Courts have documented that in the 90’s police from the Greater Buenos Aires district of Lomas de Zamora used excessive force and torture techniques against prisoners at the former detention center.

According to Sergio Smietniansky, lawyer with the human rights group COREPPI, police continued to commit human rights abuses inside the former center after the military dictatorship ended. “The Pozo de Banfield is the synthesis of state terrorism, during the military dictatorship it was used for kidnapping, torturing and disappearing people. During the return to democracy after 1983, it was used to apply the state's repressive policies with easy trigger police and torture. We are proposing the expropriation of the Pozo de Banfield. We want human rights organizations and activist groups to administer the former detention center, the same people who fought for years to close it down. We find out this week that the governor on the same day, time and place decided to hold his own memorial vigil. We think he did this to provoke us. Clearly, the administration is using the Night of the Pencils to gain some legitimacy in human rights.”

Groups want to turn the Pozo de Banfield into a space for memory. They plan to open a cultural and political center. Despite governor Felipé Solá's advise for activists to either participate in the government rally or reschedule, groups are holding a night-long vigil which will conclude with a march around the Pozo de Banfield on Saturday. University students nation-wide are organizing rallies to commemorate students killed in the Night of the Pencils this weekend.

For Free Speech Radio News I'm Marie Trigona.

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