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A President Stands Trial for Torture and Disappearings

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From the apex of the national security apparatus, he arranged for the torture of alleged terrorists and their sympathizers, and for the “disappearance” of hundreds and perhaps thousands of others. He then assumed office as president and began a rearguard struggle to defend state actors from liability for these acts. His lawyers spun doctrines of immunity, and believed that legal protections like statutes of limitations and wide grants of amnesty would block any efforts at accountability. For good measure, they sorted carefully through state records, destroying documents that might inculpate senior government figures.

But now Reynaldo Bignone, Argentina’s president from 1982-83, faces his worst nightmare: he’s going on trial for charges that could result in him spending the rest of his life in prison. The New York Times reports:

General Bignone is accused of holding ultimate responsibility for myriad cases of torture, illegal break-ins and deprivations of human rights from 1976 to 1978, before he was appointed president by the military junta in the waning years of the dictatorship.

As president from 1982 to 1983, General Bignone protected the military as Argentina returned to democracy; he granted amnesty to human rights violators and ordered the destruction of documents related to torture and the disappearances of political opponents before he agreed to transfer power to a democratically elected president, Raúl Alfonsín.

The developments in Argentina point to several international legal trends that should be of acute interest to members of the Bush team who approved torture and ran one of the largest “disappearings” programs since President Bignone’s. First, there is no statute of limitations for torture and disappearings—they can be prosecuted twenty or thirty years later. Second, the doctrine of immunity may be recognized by judges appointed by torture conspirators, but as the gravity of their crimes becomes known and new judges come to the bench, it tends to disappear.

Karl Rove has argued that accountability makes him think of “Latin American dictators in mirrored sunglasses.” The point is valid for precisely the opposite reason that Rove thinks it is. Those dictators in mirrored sunglasses sharply oppose accountability in any form. But as the tradition of the rule of law sets in, advocates of democracy invariably find that the stability of their countries depends on holding those who tortured and kidnapped accountable for their crimes.

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