Buenos Aires, Argentina – A federal court in Buenos Aires on October 23 convicted two former army officials – Jorge Olivera Rovere and Jose Menendez – to life sentences, for crimes committed during Argentina’s “Dirty War.” Rovere, 83, was commander of the city of Buenos Aires for the army during the first year of the last military dictatorship in Argentina in 1976. Official government reports say that just fewer than 9,000 people were forcibly disappeared during the last dictatorship, which ruled until 1983.
Three other defendants in the case, Teofilio Saa, Humberto Lobaiza and Felipe Alespeiti, who together were charged with 114 counts of kidnapping, were absolved.
Since 2003, when Argentina’s Congress repealed several amnesty laws from the 1980s passed during democratic transition, which has protected officials from prosecution, more than 560 officials have been indicted. Before the verdict on October 23, just over 60 officials had been convicted, and three had been absolved. The case doubles the number of officials who have been found not guilty.
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Human rights activists were enraged by the verdict, and shouted, “accomplices” at the three-judge tribunal as they exited the courtroom just after 5:30 PM.
Ileana Denis, from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group of mothers of Argentina’s disappeared, called the decision a “horror.” “They all go home,” she said in disgust after the trial, referring to the absolved defendants.
According to court documents, Ileana’s son, Carlos Denis, was kidnapped by the Argentine army off the streets of Buenos Aires at 1:00 AM on March 27, 1977. Earlier that evening, on March 26, 1977, a group of people identifying themselves as a joint command of the armed forces ransacked Carlos’ apartment, but he was not home at the time. Carlos went to file a police complaint when he returned home. After he left the police station, he was forced from his car by a group of army officials, along with two of his uncles who accompanied him to the station. The uncles were freed, but Carlos has not been seen since.
Prosecutors relied on a theory of command responsibility against the defendants, lacking any direct evidence that the defendants participated in the hundreds of counts of kidnapping brought against them, such as the disappearance of Carlos Denis. “They … are responsible for kidnappings, tortures and murders which happened in the jurisdiction under their command,” the indictment against the four lower officials alleged.
One attorney here, who wished to remain anonymous because of his relationship with the prosecutor in the case, Felix Crous, believed before the verdict that Crous might have a hard time convicting the five defendants because of a lack of direct evidence and an ambiguity over their role in the armed forces.
The strategy worked against Rovere, who was convicted for approximately 80 kidnappings and four homicides. Rovere, the highest ranking official among the five defendants, was the highest commander in the city of Buenos Aires during the dictatorship.
Menendez, though he held a lower rank than Rovere, was also convicted because the prosecutor established that Menendez had personally ordered the kidnapping of five victims and the murder of another, according to a source inside the judge’s chambers. (The written sentence with the basis for the decision will be released on December 10.) Menendez was absolved on 36 other counts of kidnapping.
A source in the judge’s chambers said that the prosecution and victims’ lawyers failed to prove that two of the absolved defendants – Saa and Lobaiza – were part of the state’s criminal structure that planned and ordered systematic forced disappearances. Saa and Lobaiza each held a lower rank than Rovere.
The source also said that the judges believed Alespeiti was part of the criminal structure of the Argentine army, but the prosecution had failed to prove that any kidnappings were committed during his command.
Assistants at the prosecutor’s office speculated that the judges believed they had not done enough to prove the absolved defendants formed part of Argentina’s repressive command structure.
Rovere’s lawyers described the government’s case as trying the defendants for “wearing a military uniform” during closing arguments.
Earlier in the day, the defendants were given the chance to offer final words to the tribunal, as is customary at the end of criminal cases in Argentina. Rovere spoke first, offering a wide-reaching and sometimes convoluted historical lecture on the roots of terrorism in Argentina and the rise of soviet and Cuban Communism. “We were the object of terrorists,” he said near the opening of his statement, defending the military’s conduct during the dirty war.
During his hour-long prepared statement, Rovere only briefly focused on the concrete legal issues in the case. “It’s been 30 years and the witnesses are impeccable,” he said, implying that the witnesses forged their testimony. He later called them “subversives.” “They are continuing their propaganda against the armed forces.”
Rovere claimed that the clandestine campaign against “subversives” was a “just fight.” Two of his homicide victims, however, were well known Uruguayan politicians, Raul Zelmar Michelini and Hector Gutierez Ruiz, who had fled to Buenos Aires as refugees after the Uruguayan military coup in 1973. Their bodies were found along with those of the Uruguayan couple Maria del Carmen Barredo de Schroeder and William Alen Withelaw in an abandoned, unlicensed car. Three of their bodies were stuffed together into the trunk.
Lobaiza spoke second, also reading from a prepared statement. He devoted most his remarks to attacking prosecutor Crous, who he accused of violating his duties as a prosecutor and attacking Lobaiza’s “civic and military reputation.”
Summing up his legal argument, Lobaiza said, “as an intermediate ranking officer, I was never informed of the reasons or the motives for the orders,” denying any involvement in formulating the orders. The court evidently believed his story.
Saa, Menendez and Alespeiti all declined their opportunity to offer final words to the tribunal.
Approximately one hundred people began to gather outside the courthouse in the early afternoon, anticipating the sentence. Most were young activists from the group HIJOS, an NGO of children of Argentina’s disappeared. They played music over loudspeakers in a festive atmosphere.
But after the sentence was read, rain clouds descended over the crowd, darkening an otherwise sunny and hot day. The mood soured with the weather and the verdict.
Asked to comment on the case after the verdict was announced, Crous, simply said, “today is not the day.” He was visibly upset. One of his subordinates described the case as “a year and a half of work down the drain.”
During the morning session, Rovere ended his appeal to the tribunal by saying, “I will wait for god’s judgment.” Man has rendered his, unsatisfying as it may be.