More than 70 prisoners convicted of crimes against humanity during Argentina’s brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship have asked to be released from prison, citing fears they will be infected by the novel Covid-19 coronavirus while behind bars.
The news emerged earlier this week, on the eve of the 44th anniversary of the March 2, 1976 coup d’état that brought the military junta to power. Petitions to judges arrived on behalf of some of Argentina’s most infamous human rights violators, including such names as Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz and Alfredo Astiz.
The requests were met with widespread condemnation from human rights prosecutors and families of the disappeared.
Already, a federal judge in La Plata has granted house arrest to three former police officers, Juan Nazareno Risso, Walter Omar Ale and Ramón Carlos Velasco, who were convicted of the murder of a Peronist University Youth (JUP) militant Horacio Chupete Benavídes in 1976. His family have appealed.
Meanwhile, in Mendoza, both a trial court and the region’s Appeals Court have granted requests from seven convicts.
Most requests have been rejected swiftly across the country. Courts in Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires City and Córdoba have ruled there is no danger of Covid-19 entering Argentina’s prisons for now. Courts have asked the Federal Penitentiary Service (SPF) to extend controls and take further measures, however.
A number of Argentina’s most notorious dictatorship-era criminals have drawn headlines in recent days with their requests for release from jail.
On Wednesday, Federal Oral Court (TOF) No. 6 rejected a request from Etchecolatz, who was the Buenos Aires provincial police service’s second-in-command during the dictatorship era. He has been convicted of numerous crimes against humanity and has been behind bars since 2006.
Etchecolatz’s legal team have regularly asked for him to be granted house arrest. On 27 December 2017, the same court, TOF 6 (under different authorities) allowed him to return to his home in Mar del Plata, a decision that prompted protests and demonstrations close to his residence. Three months later, the Federal Cassation Court – Argentina’s highest criminal court – overturned the resolution and ordered him back to his cell in Ezeiza prison.
To justify this latest rejection, the court’s judges said that no confirmed cases of coronavirus had been detected in federal prisons to date. Cases had recorded in Mar del Plata, they added pointedly – a reference to a 71-year-old man who died this week.
Federal Prosecutor Ángeles Ramos oversees the Office of the Attorney General for Crimes Against Humanity. She was the individual who opposed Etchecolatz’s house arrest.
“I think we are in a difficult situation, but fortunately the SPF has the tools and structure to contain the situation today. Maybe later the reality will exceed us all. But today the SPF does not have prison overcrowding like some provinces are experiencing,” Ramos told the Times.
“As long as the situation of the spread of the virus is under control, there is nothing to indicate that hasty measures should be taken that, on the other hand, could put the health system at risk,” she said.
“Taking a detainee out of the SPF today, [one] with a chronic illness that requires regular checks, supervised medication necessarily implies that he or she must use the health system. So, the risk to the detainee’s health is not neutralised by house arrest, quite the contrary,” Ramos added.
A total of 139 individuals convicted of crimes against humanity during the dictatorship era are held in federal prisons, according to SPF statistics.
While Etchecolatz, for example, is held at the Ezeiza prison hospital, yet more than half of those convicted for dictatorship-era crimes are housed in Unit 34 of the Campo de Mayo military base. It is one of the largest of its kind in the country and served as a host to at least four clandestine detention centres during the era of state terrorism.
On Wednesday, the SPF delivered a report to the Federal Cassation Court with the names of 1,280 inmates who are “at risk” due to the advance of Covid-19. All the human rights violators at Campo de Mayo are on the list, though the report also indicates that the situation at the military base is totally different from the state of affairs facing federal prisons across the country, which are mostly overcrowded.
The SPF report says that there are only 72 repressors imprisoned at Campo de Mayo and that a third of the unit is empty. Unit 34 was reopened as a prison during Mauricio Macri’s 2011-2015 government on the grounds that its close proximity to the military hospital made it an ideal place to house elderly prisoners.
END TO PRIVILEGE
On March 24, marking the anniversary of the coup, human rights organisations called for the government to put an end to what they described as the “privilege” prisoners housed in Campo de Mayo benefit from.
Lawyer Guadalupe Godoy, who is acting as a plaintiff in human rights trials in La Plata, welcomed this week’s rejections. She argued, however, that judges did not fully realise the conditions those convicted for crimes against humanity enjoy at the military base’s prison.
“It seems to me that both the prosecutors and the plaintiffs have been very careful in defending human rights. Our arguments were aimed at rejecting the situation of these house arrests, in comparison with the rest of the people deprived of their liberty. There are groups in other prisons [who are] much more at risk and more exposed than the perpetrators of genocide,” Godoy told the Times.
“Judges must consider the hierarchy of crimes and that if the repressors are not there, we cannot continue with trials,” she added.
As a consequence of the lockdown of the country and the recess decided by the Supreme Court, most ongoing trials investigating crimes against humanity have been suspended – a move which will inevitably generate further delays in a judicial process that has been going on for more than 35 years.