What at first was terrible news that outraged a large proportion of Argentine society, who see the conviction and imprisonment of dictatorship-era human rights violators as an irrevocable achievement for democracy, became a cause for celebration a week later.
An unexpected ruling handed down by the Supreme Court on May 3 initially opened the door to hundreds of members of the military and civilians in prison for crimes against humanity committed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship to seek a reduction of their sentences, which would in some cases even allow them to immediately be released.
However, the wave of outrage that arose in human rights groups spread in the following days throughout society, leading to changes that came about at a dizzying pace that made it unlikely for the court ruling, which applied to one particular case, to be used as a precedent for other human rights abusers to obtain a reduction in their sentences.
“It won’t go any farther than this. In the Argentine justice system, the Supreme Court’s decisions are not binding on lower courts. After the strong social repulsion and after all political sectors spoke out against the early release of human rights violators, this will end with Muiña,” Jorge Rizo, chairman of the Buenos Aires Bar Association, told IPS.
It was the case of Luis Muiña, a civilian in prison for his participation in kidnappings and torture in 1976, that sparked the massive protest demonstrations held over the past week.
In a divided ruling, the Supreme Court decided to apply the “two for one” law that compensates for time spent in pre-sentence custody, to reduce Muiña’s 13-year sentence to the nine years he has already served.
But exactly a week later, on May 10, Congress passed a law supported by all political sectors which established that the two-for-one law was not applicable in cases involving genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity.
A few hours later, hundreds of thousands of people filled the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires, reminiscent of the biggest rallies in the country’s history.
Many wore white headscarves, a symbol of the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights groups, who in April celebrated the 40th anniversary of their first march in the Plaza de Mayo square to demand that their “disappeared” sons and daughters be returned to them.
According to human rights organizations, 30,000 people were killed or “disappeared” by the regime.
A big banner on the stage read: “Never again! No freedom for human rights abusers”. The main speaker at the massive rally was Estela de Carlotto, the longtime head of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who have so far found 122 of their grandchildren, stolen by the dictatorship and raised under false identities.
“Just like with the Nazis, wherever they go we will go after them,” Carlotto chanted along with the crowd estimated by the organizers at 400,000 people.
“Fortunately, society has taken a firm stance,” said the activist, adding that the quick action by Congress “fills us with hope and gratitude.”
In the demonstration, there was in the air a strong rejection of the government of conservative President Mauricio Macri, even though it did not play any role in the trial. Many protesters held signs linking the president to the Court’s decision, a connection also insinuated in Twitter by former president Cristina Fernández (2007-2015), who at the moment was traveling through Europe.
The government had a somewhat unclear response to the Supreme Court ruling. It initially left the response exclusively in the hands of Human Rights Secretary Claudio Avruj who, although responsible for this area, is not a high-ranking official. Perhaps over-cautiously, he urged people to be “respectful of the verdict.”
But as the negative repercussions grew, the government began to reject the ruling, through more important figures. And once Congress passed the law, Macri himself congratulated the lawmakers, and said he was opposed to “any tool that favors impunity, and especially when this tool is applied to crimes against humanity.”
The Supreme Court ruling was divided, three-to-two. The majority was made up of Elena Highton, Horacio Rosatti and Carlos Rosenkrantz – the latter two named to the Court last year on Macri’s recommendation.
The two-for-one law, which stated that every day spent in pre-sentence custody counted for two days after two years had been served, was designed to help Argentina address the large proportion of people in prison who have not yet been tried and sentenced. But the 1994 law was repealed in 2001 as it had failed to achieve its aim.
But the three Supreme Court justices argued that the most beneficial law for the accused must be applied in penal law, even in cases involving crimes against humanity.
“The sentence, technically, goes against international law,” said Gastón Chillier, executive director of the Social and Legal Studies Centre (CELS), a human rights organization created during the dictatorship.
“The law which was passed promptly by Congress is a result of the cross-cutting nature of the reaction against the ruling. From now on, the justice system will have to be very autistic to ignore the rejection that the sentence generated,” Chillier told IPS.
One of the founders of CELS, lawyer Marcelo Parrilli, filed criminal charges accusing the three magistrates of prevarication, or knowingly handing down a decision contrary to the law.
Soon after, federal prosecutor Guillermo Marijuán considered that there were grounds to launch a judicial investigation. And the Front for Victory (FPV) political faction headed by former president Fernández sought to impeach Highton, Rosatti and Rosenkrantz.
But it did not all end there, since a well-known constitutionalist lawyer, Andrés Gil, asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to order Argentina to abstain from reducing the sentences of those convicted of human rights violations.
Gil told IPS: “I don’t recall in the history of Argentina any other time that Congress has reacted so quickly to a legal ruling. And I am convinced that the entire justice system is going to rebel against this Supreme Court ruling.”
“Those who signed that decision did not realize that the trial and punishment of those responsible for human rights abuses during the last dictatorship now form part of the heritage of the Argentine people,” he added.