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Skewed priorities in Uruguay

Uruguay continues to struggle with its dictatorial past.

Last updated: 18 Nov 2013 13:34
Francesca Lessa

Dr Francesca Lessa is a postdoctoral researcher at the Latin American Centre and St Anne's College, University of Oxford, specialising on issues of justice and human rights in Uruguay.
Pierre-Louis Le Goff

Pierre-Louis Le Goff is a research assistant at the Latin American centre, University of Oxford, and a member of the committee for Crimes Against Humanity at the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH), Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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Uruguay's judiciary is slow to deliver justice to the victims of its former dictatorship [AP]

"For the time being, nothing seems to threaten the possibilities for progress in the area of justice more than the recent decisions of the Supreme Court of Justice." Such was the conclusion of Pablo de Greiff, the United Nations Independent Expert on transitional justice, at the end of his visit to Uruguay in October 2013, during which he evaluated the country's progress in resolving past human rights violations. During a press conference in Montevideo on October 4, de Greiff, who was invited by the Uruguayan government, strongly criticised the lack of improvement, highlighting how there had been "little" and irregular progress in resolving the pending chapter of the human rights violations committed during Uruguay's period of dictatorship (1973-1985).

Human rights activists and advocates welcomed de Greiff's criticisms, but it is unlikely that they will bring any immediate change. Tensions have been running high throughout 2013 following a string of serious setbacks to the country's recent progress in delivering justice for the dictatorship's crimes. In February, the Supreme Court of Justice issued a decision to transfer Judge Mariana Mota, who had been at the forefront of investigations, and instated a de facto amnesty law with its ruling on the unconstitutionality of Law 18.831. As such, de Greiff's warnings are likely to fall on deaf ears, along with the other calls for justice in Uruguay.  

Securing prosecutions: a 'race against time'

The historic Gelman sentence in 2011, when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled against the Uruguayan State and condemned its failure to investigate past crimes, ushered in a period of enthusiasm within the human rights community.

During a recent visit to Uruguay, a journalist and human rights activist explained to us during an interview how Uruguay was in a "race against time to stop perpetrators of human rights violations from dying unpunished". He was referring to the large number of offenders who had escaped punishment for three decades owing to the country's 1986 amnesty law [Sp] and who are now likely to see out their days without ever having faced justice for the atrocities committed.

Indeed, despite significant progress in dealing with past human rights violations since 2005, Uruguay is still very much lagging behind its neighbours in terms of accountability. In Argentina and Chile[Sp], thousands of perpetrators are currently facing judicial investigation and numerous sentences have been handed down by the courts; in Argentina 26 trials were completed[Sp] in 2012 and 15 so far in 2013. This is in stark contrast to Uruguay where, with 226 judicial investigations into past atrocities, only 6 percent of them[Sp] have gone to trial and just 1 percent has had a final sentence by the country's highest court.

The historic Gelman sentence in 2011, when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled against the Uruguayan State and condemned its failure to investigate past crimes, ushered in a period of enthusiasm within the human rights community. This was buoyed further when shortly after the 1986 amnesty[Sp] law was finally overturned by Parliament, several new cases of abuse - including torture and sexual violence[Sp] - were denounced for the first time in late 2011.

This enthusiasm has been nipped in the bud, however, with the Supreme Court of Justice's construction in 2013 of a "wall of impunity" and its retrograde jurisprudence which applies a statute of limitations to what are effectively international crimes. One of Court's judges Jorge Ruibal Pino[Sp] has gone as far to state that no cases of past human rights violations would prosper in the Supreme Court, thus confirming our assertions on impunity in the wake of Mota's transfer.

Contradictions in the judiciary

While justice for past human rights atrocities remains an aspiration on the horizon for many of the victims waiting for redress for decades, in other instances Uruguayan courts have shown themselves remarkably capable of acting quickly to deal with other crimes. At the beginning of November 2013, criminal Judge Gabriela Merialdo[Sp] began judicial proceedings against seven people for disturbances during February's demonstrations inside the Supreme Court of Justice against the transfer of Judge Mota. The Supreme Court presented a criminal denunciation against the protesters who are already facing trial.  

What is happening in the country is very much puzzling, with some steps forward but many more steps back in terms of accountability. While some public prosecutors and judges have distanced themselves from the backward jurisprudence of the Supreme Court on past crimes, others such as judges Fanny Canessa and Roberto Timbal have applied the Court's sentence to archive investigation into past atrocities. Other examples are abundant: After much lobbying from several human rights NGOs, including the Observatorio Luz Ibarburu, a new unit for crimes of state terrorism was established in July 2013 to operate in the Ministry of Interior and to assist judges investigating these complex cases. As of mid-November 2013, the Supreme Court of Justice had not yet informed[Sp] judges about the creation of such important unit. In August 2013, judge Ruben Saravia[Sp] condemned a former military officer to four years in prison for the assassination of a student in 1973 - a rather lenient sentence for a crime of such gravity.  

In September excavations in Infantry Battalion 13 resumed the search for missing people, which led to some initial discoveries of human remains currently being examined in the United States.

Moving forward

In 2013, unlike other years, Uruguay has attracted many headlines in international newspapers for its humble President, Jose "Pepe" Mujica, for legalising marijuana, for adopting an abortion law and for allowing gay marriage. Uruguay simultaneously received widespread criticism from a range of international human rights organisations and NGOs for its stance on the past. Most recently, during the 109th session of the Human Rights Committee in Geneva, the Committee labelled the stance of the Supreme Court as "unfortunate", for failing to recognise that crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations are not subject to statutes of limitations. The committee's president, Nigel Rodley[Sp], underscored how Uruguay found itself in a position of non-compliance and actual violation of its international obligations, calling on the judiciary to reconsider its decision.

While some of the serious violations perpetrated against Uruguayans during the dictatorship are being prosecuted abroad in trials in Argentina and in Italy[It] relating to Operation Condor, it seems inappropriate that the victims, who have already endured unjustifiable delays, have to resort to foreign courts to obtain justice.

Not all hope is lost however. Several judges and prosecutors in Uruguay such as Beatriz Larrieu, Maria Helena Mainard, Alberto Reyes, and Ana Maria Tellechea, continue with their criminal investigations, considering the dictatorship's atrocities crimes against humanity and calling on witnesses to give testimony. In September excavations[Sp] in Infantry Battalion 13 resumed the search for missing people, which led to some initial discoveries of human remains currently being examined in the United States.

In the words of Uruguay's poet Mario Benedetti "el cuento no se ha acabado" (this story is far from over).

Dr Francesca Lessa is a postdoctoral researcher at the Latin American Centre and St Anne's College, University of Oxford, specialising on issues of justice and human rights in Uruguay.

Pierre-Louis LeGoff is a research assistant at the Latin American centre, University of Oxford, and a member of the committee for Crimes Against Humanity at the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH), Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Follow him on Twitter: @P_LeGoff 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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