Last Tuesday April 20, a federal court in Argentina sentenced former president Reynaldo Bignone to 25 years in prison for human rights abuses during the 1976-1983 “dirty war”. The Court also sentenced five other retired military officers to prison terms ranging from 17 to 25 years in connection with abuses during the military regime. These sentences consolidate the effort of coming to terms with the past in Argentina that, after many ups and downs since the transition to democracy (1983), got a definitive impulse since the arrival of Nestor Kirchner to the presidency in 2003. As soon as he took office, former president Kirchner fired 52 senior military officers, and during his first year of presidency 97 military personnel were charged with human rights violations and detained.
In recent years other Latin American countries have made important advances in judging the abuses committed during part autocratic regimes. In Chile, for instance, a country where for many years it was not possible to revisit the past, by 2009 judges had opened over 2,500 investigations and have convicted and sentenced 276 former security agents (data taken from Alexandra Huneeus. 2010. “Judging from a Guilty Conscience: The Chilean Judiciary’s Human Rights Turn.” Law and Social Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 1). Another recent interesting case is that of Peru, where televised trials of former president Alberto Fujimori also produced a jail sentence of 25 years for his participation in two episodes of mass killings that took place during his administration.
But not all countries in the region have been able to prosecute past abuses. For example, top military officers in Brazil recently objected the creation of a strong Truth Commission created y president Lula, effectively limiting its reach. There is also the frustrated attempt of former Mexican president Vicente Fox to prosecute the massive student killings that took place in 1968 and 1971 under the authoritarian regime of the PRI. Moreover, Bolivian president Evo Morales is currently trying to prosecute former presidents and other political figures using procedures that are closer to what Otto Kirchheimer called “victor’s justice” than to the exemplary trials in Argentina, Chile or Peru conducted by ordinary courts that effectively guarantee the procedural rights of the defendants.
These events, and the current trial in Spain against Judge Baltazar Garzón for, among other things, trying to investigate the crimes that occurred during the Franco regime, revive the question of the conditions under which transitional justice can take place. In any case, this week’s sentences in Argentina are a welcome development in the quest for coming to terms with the past in this region of the world.