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Law: Habeas Corpses

4 minute read

“Disappearing”in Argentina

The body of Guillermo Diaz Lestrem turned up like a ghastly flower in Buenos Aires’ elegant Palermo Park late last fall. The cause of death was heart failure and fluid in the lungs; the corpse had bruises on the face and neck. Shortly before he vanished, Lestrem, a defense lawyer and former judge, had prepared a writ of habeas corpus-on his own behalf. He had discovered that unknown men were looking for him and feared that he would become yet another of Argentina’s “desaparecidos.”

To “disappear” in Argentina means to be taken away by men in mufti who claim to be members of the country’s security forces. When the desaparecido’s family applies for habeas corpus, the government often claims to know nothing, if it replies at all. With luck, the missing person reappears in jail. The death of Lestrem, who according to human rights reports had been arrested in 1976, tortured and then released by Argentina’s military junta, is a mystery. He could have been killed by the military, surmised a Buenos Aires defense lawyer. Or by leftist guerrillas because he had told too much during his first captivity. “Here, you see,” the lawyer explained, “if people disappear, their bodies never usually reappear in an identifiable way.” Whoever killed him, Lestrem is a victim of what Argentina’s military leaders have called “the dirty war” between the government and guerrillas, who by 1976 had reduced the country to virtual anarchy.

Due process was another victim of Argentina’s dirty war. For political prisoners, the problem is usually not getting a fair trial but getting any trial at all. At least 4,500 Argentines have disappeared since the military took over three years ago, and an additional 2,000 have been admittedly held without formal charges by the government. Even trying to persuade the government to produce a desaparecido for trial can be dangerous. According to one lawyer, the police keep a list of lawyers who seek to get their clients out on habeas corpus, and if a name appears more than once or twice, it is sent to the government’s security forces. The harsh results have prompted human rights activists to begin keeping lists of their own: a fortnight ago, a visiting delegation of prominent New York lawyers handed the government the names of 99 detained lawyers and 92 others who have simply vanished. Says one Western diplomat: “The right to counsel barely exists in Argentina. Most people are advised that having a lawyer is counterproductive.”

When the military junta seized power in 1976, it purged the courts and took away much of the judiciary’s responsibility for so-called subversive cases. Political defendants lucky enough to get a trial often go before military tribunals in secrecy and with little chance of appeal. Still, there are signs that Argentina is sidling toward some kind of rule of law. After Oscar Smith, a labor leader suspected of guerrilla connections, disappeared in February 1977, human rights activists applied for habeas corpus and tacked on the names of 1,451 other desaparecidos. Last December the Supreme Court of Justice agreed that the absence of information about them amounted to a “veritable deprivation of due process” and gently urged President Jorge Videla to do something about it. In February Videla responded with “concern” and announced that “full and effective force of juridical order” was his goal, too. A more concrete step was taken by the court in the case of a naval officer who, for no good reason, threatened a civilian motorist on a public road. The military man was arrested and promptly sprung by a military delegation. But when the Supreme Court ordered his return, the military grudgingly obliged. JUSTICE TAKES POWER proclaimed the headline of the weekly magazine Somos, whose cover showed a picture of a wide-eyed justice with her balanced scales.

One reason why the government is at least trying to give the appearance of greater justice is that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States arrives in Argentina next month. Two weeks ago, U.S. officials on instruction from Washington delivered a closed-door dressing down to Videla on his government’s human rights performance. “I’m not expecting a very good report by the human rights commission on Argentina,” a high U.S. embassy official told TIME South American Correspondent George Russell. But the official feels that the military is becoming more willing to allow the courts to try political prisoners. The question is how many lawyers are now left who are willing to defend them.

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