Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Human Rights in Argentina: A year without Julio Lopez

Human Rights groups in Argentina rallied September 18 to mark the one year disappearance of a key witness who helped convict a former police officer for life in 2006. Rights representatives have expressed immediate concerns over missing witness Julio Lopez; a new name that has been inscribed on the doleful roll call of Argentina's disappeared. From the final courtroom proceedings to the search for the disappeared witness, a look at the events of the past year.

“The Federal Criminal Court number 1 in
La Plata, orders the following sentence. The court sentences Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz to life in prison.” As judge Carlos Rozanski read the sentence, Etchecolatz kissed a crucifix. Several spectators threw red paint on him as he was escorted out of the courtroom. Human rights activists and relatives of the disappeared celebrated the verdict while embracing each other inside and outside the court room in La Plata,

Julio Lopez, went missing exactly a year ago, on the eve of the land mark conviction of Miguel Etchecolatz, the first military officer to be sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide committed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Lopez was last seen walking near his home in
La Plata, about 40 miles from Buenos Aires.

Lopez's testimony of his detention as a political prisoner from 1976-1979 in clandestine detention centers was key in the conviction of Etchecolatz. Testifying before a court in
La Plata, Lopez described the prolonged bouts of torture under Etchecolatz's direct supervision. “That day they electrocuted me with the electric prod using a lower voltage. The electric prod had a battery, so I couldn't feel it as much. ‘Now you're going to feel it,’ he said to me. He gave an order to the others: ‘Hook the electric prod up directly to the street line,’ he said. Etchecolatz said this. Mr. Etchecolatz.”

Since Lopez's disappearance, little headway has been made in the investigation of his whereabouts. Much of the evidence recently released has been tracked to the federal pr
ison where Etchecolatz and another 100 military officers are imprisoned. Phone calls from the prison and note’s from Etchecolatz’s personal agenda lead to a clear trail that Lopez was under surveillance in the days leading up to his kidnapping.

At a press conference, Myriam Bergman, human rights lawyer handling the case of Lopez's disappearance, says she worries that much of the evidence has been filtered to protect the kidnappers. “A year has gone by since Julio was kidnapped and the disappearance of th
e comrade and there's still no one under investigation in the case. Human rights organizations have given the only serious tip offs being investigated. The investigators have waited months to investigate them. They allowed the suspects under investigation to know they were being investigated.”

Human rights groups are pointing to Etchecolatz and other military officers currently jailed in the V.I.P. Marcos Paz Federal prison while facing trial for human rights crimes. For Margarita Cruz, a torture survivor from the northern province of Tucuman, Julio Lopez's disappearance is a sign of the long standing impunity for military personnel who killed an estimated 30,000 people during the military junta's reign of terror. “A year since Julio was disappeared, it's certain that impunity in the country is alive and well. All of the work of human rights organizations on each of the anniversaries, each month since Julio's disappearance, is going to bring change. That's what we hope, we are calling for a massive march, to demand real answers to the whereabouts of Julio Lopez.”

In total, 256 former military personnel and members of the military government have been accused of human rights crimes and are now awaiting trial. But only three trials have been held since Argentina's Supreme Court struck down amnesty laws in 2005 protecting military personnel who served during the seven-year dictatorship. Human rights groups in Argentina report that the trials to convict former members of the military dictatorship for abuses have advanced at a snails pace, if advancing at all. Victims blame an inefficient court system filled with structural roadblocks and uncooperative judges.

To listen to this radio story visit, www.fsrn.org. For videos on human rights in Argentina visit, www.agoratv.org

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