Buenos Aires, Argentina -- Carlos Lordkipanidse was left inside the courtroom, grasping at thin air.
His torturer, Hector Febres, had been found dead in his jail cell just four days before his sentence was to be handed down, and the hundreds of people that he allegedly tormented at ESMA, the largest clandestine prison during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” would not receive closure from the country’s courts. The case had lasted nine years.
“It’s called impunity,” said Lordkipanidse, 59, who was held for over two years at ESMA, and testified in the case against Febres.
Argentina is unique in the region for having acquired hundreds of convictions for crimes against humanity resulting from its period of military rule from 1976-83, such as the recent trial that found former dictator Jorge Videla and eight other officials guilty of systematically stealing babies from suspected leftist dissidents who were later killed or “disappeared” in custody.
Even so, in 2011 alone, 39 suspected and convicted war criminals passed away due to old age and other ailments before their trials could reach completion. In response, the country’s judiciary is expediting trials so that aging officials of the junta are held accountable before they die off.
“The point is to arrive promptly at justice,” said Pedro David, president of the Argentine National Appeals Court, who pushed the reforms through earlier this year. “There were concerns about the length of the trials and the revictimization of witnesses.”
Among the reforms are the accumulation of cases, allowing witnesses to testify only once for multiple defendants and protecting victims like Lordkipanidse from having to relive their experiences of torture and captivity.
Similarly, judges must avoid “inordinate delays,” and remove steps from what is often a cumbersome undertaking. For example, in the case last year known as ESMA I against 18 officials, the reading of charges took four months.
Those convicted of war crimes in Argentina maintain the presumption of innocence until the sentence receives a final validation from the Supreme Court, a process often lasting years and covering only 11 percent of convictions so far, according to a 2012 report from the Center for Legal and Social Studies.
The same report shows that the longest hangups are at the National Appeals Court. For many years, judges were reluctant to take part in human rights proceedings that might have revealed their own involvement in the dictatorship, the report says. As of 2011, 55 judges were being investigated for their links to crimes against humanity.
Febres was detained in 1998 for kidnapping, a crime not included in the amnesty laws enacted in the 1980s or the pardon issued by President Carlos Menem in the 1990s. Kidnapping cases were used by human rights groups such as the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo to pressure the judicial system into nullifying the amnesty laws in 2001. They were overturned by Congress in 2003.
But however late and unwieldy, human rights trials are a bright spot within Argentina’s judiciary — and within the region’s judiciaries, experts said.
The case against Febres in 2007 — the first against ESMA officials – demonstrates how far the proceedings have evolved. Back then, Febres was the lone defendant facing four charges of kidnapping and torture. Next month, the trial known as ESMA II will begin, and will involve 64 defendants and more than 781 different charges.
“The human rights trials show that Argentina’s courts can deal with complex cases — when it wants to,” said Ezequiel Nino, co-director of the Civil Association for Equality and Justice, an independent watchdog. Whereas most countries have tried war criminals in ad hoc tribunals, Argentina is using its federal justice system, where a culture of impunity still reigns, he said.
All together, roughly 260 convictions have been handed down for crimes against humanity since cases were re-opened in 2006, and hundreds more will stand trial in coming years. In contrast, earlier this month, just the second national government official in over 30 years was found guilty of corruption by Argentina’s courts, despite hundreds of investigations.
In office since 2003, the successive governments of President Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner have won broad support for the inclusion of human rights in their governing platform, appealing to Argentines that widely condemn the actions of the military junta.
“On the one hand, you have clear political support from the executive branch for human rights trials,” said Nino. “But there’s a parallel attempt to slow down cases of corruption.”
Other countries in the region that fell under military rule in the 60s, 70s, and 80s are further behind. Brazil inaugurated a truth commission this year, but amnesty laws still in place prohibit charges against former rulers. Uruguay only recently overturned its amnesty law. And Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet famously died before being convicted in 2006. The Pinochet-era amnesty law remains in place, though some convictions have been handed down due to loopholes.
In Argentina, family members of military and police officials killed by armed guerrilla groups before and during the dictatorship have called for equal efforts to prosecute those responsible for attacks, but the topic remains largely out of view.
“To me, it’s not taboo to talk about the violence of left-wing groups,” said Adolfo Perez Esquivel, an Argentine and recipient of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to denounce human rights violations at the time. If the country is to deepen its search for justice, he said, “we must talk about these things.”
Today, ESMA is a museum for truth and memory. Carlos Lordkipanidse, a photographer, has been back often. On the quest for justice in Argentina, he says, “we’re still far from our dreams.”