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Spain versus the despots

Human Rights

Senile dementia gave General Pinochet the excuse he needed to escape trial in a Spanish court, only for the former dictator to make a miraculous recovery once he was safely back on Chilean tarmac. Yet the General’s pursuers did not lose heart. Six years on, human rights activists, lawyers and judges in Madrid are again scouring the world for ageing men with a track record of atrocities.

For the first time since Judge Baltasar Garzón took up the cause of victims of the Argentine dictatorship in 1996, Spain’s highest court has given its full approval to the quest for international justice. In October the Constitutional Court in Madrid ruled that any gross violations of human rights or genocide – committed anywhere in the world and irrespective of whether Spaniards were involved – could be prosecuted and tried in Spain. So long, of course, as the criminals had not been punished elsewhere.

Now the human rights activists, lawyers and judges behind this campaign have several new indictments in their sights. Investigations have been opened into seven former Chinese leaders, including Jiang Zemin and Li Peng, for sponsoring the alleged extermination of native Tibetans. A lawsuit on Rwanda is pending. Yet most experts are convinced that the star case of the next few years will come from Guatemala, whose 626 recorded massacres from 1978 to 1983 have thus far gone untouched both inside and outside the country.

‘There has been absolute impunity,’ argues Prudencio García, a Spanish expert in Guatemala’s conflict, ‘and this in spite of the heroic actions of judges, prosecutors and witnesses who have been systematically threatened and killed.’ For the moment, the judge in charge of the Guatemala file (which stems from a lawsuit brought by Nobel prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú) has sought permission to interview witnesses in the Central American country. ‘There are 15 to 16 people being investigated at the moment,’ explains Manuel Ollé, a Spanish lawyer intimately involved in these cases. ‘But as investigations proceed, this could rise to 400, [even] 500.’

More conservative judges are loath to see Spain become the on-call courthouse for Latin America. But if permission for the judge’s visit to Guatemala is denied, which is probable, Judge Santiago Pedraz could then issue a ream of international arrest warrants that will effectively jail those charged within their home country. Previous litigation against Chilean and Argentine military leaders and operatives has proved that the symbolic value of such arrest warrants, or a shamefaced appearance in a foreign court, can spur a country into exposing its past.

Although a new trial of an Argentine ‘dirty war’ officer is soon to begin, it will only be the second of its kind to take place in Madrid. The first ended last April, when naval captain Adolfo Scilingo was handed a life sentence for throwing 30 naked and drugged prisoners to their deaths in the South Atlantic. When Scilingo arrived in Spain voluntarily in 1997 to testify, no-one was under arrest in Argentina for their crimes under the junta. Now, there are 175 people in detention.

New Internationalist issue 387 magazine cover This article is from the March 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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