MONTEVIDEO – Uruguay‘s Supreme Court threw a new obstacle in the way of efforts to prosecute retired military officers for alleged crimes against humanity during the dictatorships that ruled South America’s Southern Cone region in the 1970s and 1980s.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court magistrates unanimously ruled that they did not have the jurisdiction to demand that the executive branch hand over a request for the arrest and extradition of five retired Uruguayan military officers, filed by a judge in Argentina.
Argentine Federal Judge Rodolfo Canicoba brought the request for the extradition of the Uruguayan officers, wanted in connection with human rights crimes committed in that country as part of Operation Condor, on June 21, 2001.
Operation Condor was a top-secret regional program that, starting in the second half of the 1970s, coordinated military and intelligence efforts aimed at persecuting and eliminating leftists and other real or suspected dissidents in the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay when they were ruled by de facto military regimes in the 1970s and 1980s.
Canicoba requested the arrest and extradition of retired Uruguayan officers Jose Gavazzo, Julio Vadora, Jorge Silveira and Manuel Cordero, and retired police commissioner Hugo Campos (who has since died). The accused are wanted in Argentina on charges of kidnapping, torture and forced disappearance.
But Canicoba’s request was quietly shelved by the Uruguayan government of conservative President Jorge Batlle, on the argument that the arrest and extradition of the retired officers could compromise "public order."
Governments can invoke public order to turn down extradition requests, according to the extradition treaty in effect between Argentina and Uruguay since June 10, 2001 just 11 days before the Buenos Aires judge filed his request.
The public order clause also exists in agreements among the countries of the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) trade bloc, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
But when it came out that the government had decided not to act on the extradition request, without referring it to the courts for consideration, the Institute of Legal and Social Studies of Uruguay (IELSUR) brought a lawsuit arguing that the Supreme Court had the jurisdiction to rule on the request.
IELSUR argued that based on the historical tradition of separation of powers, which is enshrined in the constitution and forms the basis of the Uruguayan democratic system, it is the courts that should respond to the extradition request, after removing it from the orbit of the executive.
The rights group also argued that the government decision not to act on the extradition request without sending it to the courts ran counter to international criminal cooperation conventions signed by Uruguay.
However, Tuesday’s Court verdict expressly states that the ball is firmly in the executive branch’s court.
IELSUR human rights lawyer Martin Prat told IPS that the organization would now study other possibilities, such as taking the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Prat lamented that the ruling squashed any chances of extraditing the retired officers, and could be an indication of the handling of future extradition requests for those charged with human rights abuses.
But he underlined that it does not set a legal precedent in the strict sense.
Another human rights lawyer, Hebe Martinez Burle, also expressed to IPS her disappointment with the Supreme Court ruling.
In Uruguay, Martinez Burle took part in the lawsuit demanding information on the 1976 assassinations of Uruguayan legislators Hector Gutierrez Ruiz and Zelmar Michelini in Argentina, which were also committed as part of Operation Condor.
She is also acting as an adviser to those seeking an in-depth investigation into the two murders in Buenos Aires.
Canicoba’s extradition request was the first involving human rights violations to make it to the Uruguayan Supreme Court.
Human rights organizations estimate that around 160 Uruguayans became the victims of forced disappearance during the 1973-1985 dictatorship, most of them in Argentina, after spending time in clandestine torture centers run by the security forces of both countries, like the notorious Automotores Orletti in Buenos Aires.
Uruguay, a country of three million at the time, had the largest number of political prisoners, in proportional terms, in the Americas.
Under Argentina’s 1976-1983 de facto regime, some 10,000 activists and others were "disappeared," according to official figures, although human rights groups put the number at around 30,000.
The Uruguayan government based its decision not to act on the extradition request on this country’s 1989 amnesty law, which let members of the military accused of human rights crimes off the hook.
Gavazzo, Cordero, Silveira and Campos remained outside the reach of the Argentine justice system due to the amnesty laws passed in that country in the mid-1980s, which put an end to prosecutions of military personnel facing human rights charges.
But the two amnesty laws were annulled by the Argentine parliament in 2003.
The Batlle administration and Interior Minister Daniel Borrelli in particular have failed to account for the whereabouts of Cordero, since a public scandal broke out when his family said he had left the country even though he is wanted by Interpol (International Police) and is facing charges of contempt of court.
In Uruguay, only one person involved in the dictatorship former foreign minister Juan Carlos Blanco has so far been prosecuted for crimes against humanity.
Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling dealt yet another blow to the hopes of victims’ families, survivors and human rights defenders that justice would finally be administered in at least some of the pending human rights cases, activists told IPS.