To settle scores from the 1970s, the president tosses aside due process.
April 6, 2014 5:51 p.m. ET
Popular leaders in Latin America often meet little resistance when they strip unpopular
citizens of their civil liberties. But the exercise of even a little authoritarian power is like
an appetizer. It increases the hunger for more.
Cuba in 1959 was an obvious example. So too was Argentina’s right-wing military
dictatorship, which became a law unto itself in the aftermath of the 1976 coup.
Now Argentine President Cristina Kirchner is taking her country down the same illiberal
path by denying due process to some 1,600 prisoners who were members of the
military or police in the 1970s. Argentines and the international community have largely
remained silent about this travesty of justice, presumably because the military
government was so unpopular. They are likely to be sorry.
The Cuban precedent is instructive. Two months after Fidel Castro defeated Cuban
dictator Fulgencio Batista, 43 members of the Cuban air force, selected at random,
were tried on charges of bombing the civilian population during the conflict. A
revolutionary tribunal exonerated the men, citing a lack of evidence.
But Castro disagreed and announced a new trial. No new evidence was presented and
the second tribunal did not issue a ruling. Three days later Castro sentenced the pilots
to 30 years hard labor. The gunners got 20 years and the mechanics got two years.
The bearded revolutionary was a hero, having unseated a dictator. But the nation
would come to regret the power it allowed him when he confined both enemies and
admirers to a police state.
No one doubts that there were gross human-rights violations committed in Argentina on both sides when the military tried to contain the Castro-inspired terrorism that rocked the country in the 1970s. Morality, national reconciliation and the stability of the republic require that
those responsible be held accountable.
But Mrs. Kirchner is not seeking justice. She wants revenge for the losses the military
inflicted on the left, where her sympathies lie.
After President Néstor Kirchner (2003-07) named new members to the Supreme Court,
it nullified the amnesty that prior governments had granted to members of the military
since 1983. In a separate decision the court ruled that the crimes committed by former
members of terrorist groups were covered by the statute of limitations. Some of these
were employed in Kirchner’s government, had seats in Congress or supported him in
the media. Then he began rounding up military and police who had been on active duty
during the 1970s war. Mrs. Kirchner, who took office in 2007, has quickened the pace
According to the Buenos Aires- based nonprofit Civil Association of Lawyers for Justice
and Harmony, some 700 soldiers and policemen are in jail, while about 900 are under
house arrest. Legal proceedings drag on for years. About half of the judges have been
appointed by the Kirchners. Advocates for the prisoners’ rights allege that all judges
face demotion or transfer if their decisions are not politically correct.
The lawyers’ association has documented many cases of aging and ill prisoners denied
the right to home detention and medical care. Alberto Solanet, who heads the
association, told me in an email last week that 224 have died in confinement.
International conventions assign limits to the number of years the state may hold
prisoners remanded to trial. But the lawyers’ association claims that courts have
allowed those limits to be violated, with some prisoners detained for more than 10
The lawyers’ association says that 334 prisoners have been convicted of crimes
committed during the war. Some may be guilty. But with Mrs. Kirchner’s thumb on the
scales of justice, many of the cases remain contentious.
According to defense attorneys and legal analysts, the courts in many cases ignore the
legal standard that proof beyond reasonable doubt is required to convict. The accused
must prove their innocence. As the 400-strong lawyers association puts it, “merely
belonging to the military or security forces at the time of the alleged event being
investigated renders members subject to indictment and later conviction.” It notes that
“The effective participation in the event of which they are accused does not need to
In a letter to La Nacíon on Jan. 29, Aníbal Guevara Bianchi stated that 80% of the
witnesses at his father’s trial said they did not know who he was. One witness placed
him at a time and location when “he was no longer posted in that place.” Others
testified that he had properly performed his duties when he arrested them.
Nevertheless, Mr. Guevara Bianchi’s father “was sentenced to life in prison, a much
harsher conviction than that of his generals in the trial of the juntas.”
The theme of the son’s narrative is by no means unique among prisoners’ families.
Argentines are surely aware that all is not well with their criminal justice system.
Perhaps they are less mindful of what it means for the future of the republic.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com