Argentina's Dirty War: How to Defend an Accused Mass Murderer?

Monday, 05 October 2009 14:29 By Sam Ferguson, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

(Photo Illustration: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t)

    Buenos Aires, Argentina - Prosecutors here in Argentina have framed former Gen. Jorge Olivera Rovere as Argentina's Adolf Eichmann: a mid-level official who dutifully helped execute orders to exterminate opponents of Argentina's last military dictatorship. Yesterday, Rovere's attorneys defended the aging military man, 83, saying that the trial of the former general threatened to disrupt the "social peace" generated by amnesty laws and pardons passed in the 1980's.

    Rovere is charged with 120 counts of kidnapping and four homicides for his involvement in Argentina's "Dirty War." After the military coup on March 24, 1976, thousands of people were "disappeared" by Argentina's regime: kidnapped from their homes and offices, taken to clandestine prisons and tortured for information. Many were executed and what happened to their remains is unknown.


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    During 1976, Rovere was in charge of "anti-subversive" operations for the army in the city of Buenos Aires. The military took power amidst violence between paramilitaries, security forces and leftist guerilla organizations, promising to end violence and fight "subversion." In the army hierarchy, Rovere was two ranks below the ruling general, Jorge Videla.

    Rovere was first indicted in 1985, shortly after democracy returned. His case was suspended when former President Carlos Menem pardoned Rovere and other senior officers in 1989 before the trial reached a verdict. In April 2004, however, a federal judge reopened Rovere's case, declaring that the pardon was unconstitutional under international law.

    Since February, the court has heard from hundreds of witnesses in the case, meeting twice a week. Beginning in early September, federal prosecutor Felix Crous spent four days summarizing the evidence against Rovere and four of his subordinates who are also charged in the case: Bernardo José Menéndez, Teófilo Saa, Humberto Lobaiza and Felipe Alespeiti. Though no witnesses identified Rovere as their torturer or kidnapper, Crous has argued that Rovere was an essential component of the "anti-subversive" operations in Buenos Aires, coordinating activities of the police, the navy and the army. He has argued that Rovere's rank and circumstantial evidence "convincingly" establish Rovere's guilt. Crous spent two days summarizing more than 200 cases of kidnapping and disappearances that happened in Buenos Aires during Rovere's command.

    Yesterday was the defense's turn.

    Rovere's lawyers - father and son Norberto and Nicolas Giletta - took turns reading a prepared closing statement for four hours, in a mix of ideological, political, legal and factual arguments. Norberto Giletta, the father, was a judge during the dictatorship and a fierce defender of the military regime. While he was a judge, he ordered the arrest of Robert Cox, the former editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, one of the few papers in Argentina that refused to cave to government threats and censorship. Human rights groups here have accused him of complicity in the violence of the 1970's for his role as a judge.

    Norberto Giletta opened the defense with a charged, full frontal assault on victims in the case, telling the court that "we are here today because of leftist forces, national and international." To discredit the testimony against Rovere, he said that the vast majority of witnesses belonged to or had family members in "terrorist" organizations.

    The defense's theory is that it was legal for Rovere to detain suspected terrorists. They argue that he was not aware of, or was not responsible for, what happened to his detainees - torture and execution - once they were out of his hands. They summarized the prosecutor's case as prosecuting their client for "wearing a uniform."

    For over an hour, Rovere's attorneys meticulously reviewed 105 cases, saying that in each instance the victims were taken outside of Rovere's jurisdiction, or were members of militant groups and were detained legally under a state of siege declared prior to the coup.

    At times, Norberto Giletta, in a high-pitched, scratchy voice, lashed out at lawyers from the other side, accusing the human rights group of wanting "revenge."

    At other points, the defense took a more traditional legal course. Norberto Giletta told the court that Rovere's pardon was an "essential political act of sovereignty" reserved exclusively to the president, and could not be reviewed by a court.

    Nicolas Giletta also said that overturning the pardons granted by Menem - which had been upheld by the Supreme Court shortly after they were granted - is "a dangerous game, calling into doubt all the court's jurisprudence."

    So far, 58 former military officials have been convicted and three absolved since Argentina's amnesty laws were repealed in 2003, according to data compiled by the Center for Social and Legal Studies, known as CELS, a human rights organization that represents victims in this case and others like it.

    Gerardo Fernandez, a lawyer for CELS, said after the hearing that the defense's arguments are not credible. Fernandez said that it is impossible that someone with Rovere's rank and command position would not have known about or participated in clandestine operations: many forces were operating throughout the capital in counter-terrorism activities. They were often heavily armed and dressed as civilians, but they never accidentally fired on one another.

    Ironically, Nicolas Giletta said in an interview after the hearing that he does not believe his client will be absolved. But, he says that his client may benefit from a change in composition on the Supreme Court, or if the case ever finds its way to an international tribunal.

    Fernandez, the CELS lawyer, is confident that Rovere will be convicted. But a human rights lawyer not involved in the case said that this may be the most difficult case yet for human rights organizations, because of the lack of eyewitness evidence against Rovere. Last year, the tribunal hearing Rovere's case absolved a lower-ranking police officer.

    Rovere, with a full head of white hair and droopy skin on his aging face, was dressed in a gray suit and black overcoat. He sat almost motionless throughout the proceedings with his hands folded together on his lap. Just before the tribunal convened again after lunch, he looked up at six family members sitting in the upper balcony of the courtroom who had come to support him.

    A few spectators trickled in throughout the proceedings, at times numbering fifteen. But official parties in the case vastly outnumbered members of the public.

    Rovere walked out of the courthouse through a back entrance and drove away with his family in a small SUV. Rovere had been under preventive detention for three years until he was ordered released by the federal Camara de Casacion, the highest court of criminal appeals. Human rights groups have charged that Casacion has purposefully delayed the investigation of human rights cases because of ideological resistance.

    The prosecutor has asked that Rovere be given five back-to-back sentences. He has also asked that each of the other defendants be given the maximum 25-year penalty for kidnapping. This week, the public defender will give closing statements on behalf of the other four defendants. A verdict and sentence are expected in October.

Sam Ferguson

Sam Ferguson is a Fulbright Scholar and Yale Law School Robina Intetnational Human Rights Fellow living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is writing a book, Remnants of a Dirty War, about prosecuting human rights violations in Argentina.

Last modified on Tuesday, 06 October 2009 08:43