ARGENTINA: Trial over Baby Theft Opens at Last

  • by Marcela Valente (buenos aires)
  • Inter Press Service

'It was sad and even repugnant to see the apathy and indifference of the accused, who dozed off while the prosecutor's report was read out,' 91-year-old Rosa Roisinblit, vice president of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, the organisation that brought the charges, told IPS after the first day of the trial in a Buenos Aires court.

In the dock are former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, 85; the last head of the military junta, Reynaldo Bignone, 83; five prominent army, navy and coast guard officers; and one civilian doctor.

The eight defendants face charges of 'taking, retaining, hiding and changing the identities of' 34 children born to political prisoners held in clandestine prisons during the dictatorship.

The opening session of the trial, which could last more than eight months, was attended by representatives of human rights groups, survivors of the 'dirty war' against dissidents, and relatives of the victims.

Some 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared during the seven-year dictatorship, according to human rights organisations.

Videla was brought into court in handcuffs because he is serving a life sentence for other crimes against humanity. But as the prosecutor's report was read, the former dictator dozed off, with his head on another defendant's shoulder.

'We have no doubt that there is more than enough evidence to prove that this was a systematic plan to steal children,' said Roisinblit, who hopes the defendants will be sentenced to life in prison.

Roisinblit's only daughter, Patricia, was eight months pregnant when she was kidnapped in 1978. Patricia's husband, José Pérez, was also forcibly disappeared, and they left behind a 15-month-old daughter, who was raised by her grandparents.

The toddler, Mariana Pérez, is now 34. It was not until 11 years ago that she found out that her mother had given birth to a baby boy, Guillermo Pérez, in the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), the regime's largest and most notorious torture centre.

In 2000, the young man was located by the Grandmothers. He had been raised by a civilian employee of the air force, who had taken the baby and changed his name. Roisinblit is now a defendant in the case, accompanied by her two grandchildren.

The Grandmothers emerged in the late 1970s, during the dictatorship, as a breakaway group of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, which was founded to demand that their missing sons and daughters be returned to them alive.

The specific focus of the Grandmothers was to track down their lost grandchildren, who were either born in captivity or kidnapped as babies or toddlers and illegally adopted by military or civilian families after their parents had been forcibly disappeared.

In recent years, grown siblings of the missing children have joined in the task, setting up their own networks to reach out to young people still living under the false identities they were given.

The Grandmothers estimate that some 500 babies or toddlers were stolen during the dictatorship. Some of them were presumably killed.

A total of 102 youngsters have been found. Most of them were raised by military families. But some were adopted in good faith by couples who did not know their history.

Of the 34 cases included in the trial that got underway Monday, some of the young people are still missing and others have regained their real identities. Among those not yet found is the grandson of the president of Grandmothers, Estela de Carlotto.

The youngsters who have been reunited with their biological families include the granddaughter of famous poet Juan Gelman, Macarena Gelman, who was found in 2000; Buenos Aires city lawmaker Juan Cabandié, who was born in ESMA; and human rights activist and national legislator Victoria Donda.

The former junta members were tried in 1985 and sentenced to life in prison. Later, the legal action brought against thousands of lower-ranking members of the security forces sparked army revolts and heavy military pressure against the still-fragile democracy, which prompted the adoption of two amnesty laws in 1986 and 1987. The former military commanders were pardoned and released in 1989 and 1990 by presidential decree.

After the pardons, no member of the military was imprisoned for human rights violations until the late 1990s, when the Grandmothers brought the charges for baby theft -- a crime that was not covered by the pardons or the amnesty laws.

Other human rights trials were resumed after the amnesty laws were overturned in 2005 and the pardons were struck down in 2007.

It took 14 years for the baby theft trial against Videla and the other officers to open. 'Since we started, there have been many new developments and discoveries,' said Roisinblit.

Besides Videla and Bignone, the defendants in the trial that began Monday are former army general Santiago Riveros, former admirals Antonio Vañek and Rubén Franco, former navy captain Jorge Acosta, former coast guard officer Juan Antonio Azic, and a doctor who worked at ESMA, Jorge Magnacco.

Four others accused in the case have died since the charges were brought: former admiral Emilio Massera, former police chief Juan Sasiain, former coast guard officer Héctor Febres and former army chief Cristino Nicolaides.

At the start of the trial, which is being aired on television, prosecutor Federico Delgado's report was read out. The document stated that although 'births took place' in every clandestine detention and torture centre in the country, there were 'strategic centres' that operated as 'maternity wards,' complete with birthing rooms and nurseries.

These included ESMA, in the capital, Campo de Mayo, a military base 30 km from downtown Buenos Aires, and at least six other illegal prisons that operated in military and police installations.

Delgado said in his report that this 'is not just another case,' but one that reveals 'one of the darkest episodes in Argentine history' of 'systematic violence by the state.'

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service