On Wednesday, thousands filled the streets of Buenos Aires to protest a recent Supreme Court ruling—the so-called “2×1” law. The symbolism was clear. Holding white scarves in their hands, Argentinines stood on the same ground where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo first put on white headscarves to protest the disappearance of their children during Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. This time, though, what is at stake is not just the violence of disappearance and the political repression of the dictatorship, but the historical legacy and accountability that many feel is critical to ensuring that these crimes never again take place.
Forty years after their first marches around the Plaza de Mayo, the Mothers (Founding Line) were there again this week, along with a range of groups from across civil society, including the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, HIJOS (representing children of the disappeared), unions, and regular citizens. Together, the public is challenging what they see as an opening to renewed impunity for the criminals of the Argentine military dictatorship.
This massive protest occurred in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling last week in the case of Luis Muiña, a man convicted of kidnapping and torture in 2011, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was one of hundreds of perpetrators–also known as repressors or genocidas–who have been prosecuted for crimes committed during the 1976-1983 dictatorship since the amnesty laws were overturned over ten years ago, paving the way for the perpetrators of serious crimes who had enjoyed years of impunity.
In the court’s recent 3-2 ruling in the Muiña case, the justices applied what’s called the “2×1” law, allowing for an early release for Muiña because of time served before conviction. This may seem like a technicality, but it has caused an uproar in the international human rights community and in Argentine society for several reasons. The law itself—Law No. 13,290—was only put into effect in 1994, and was actually repealed in 2001. Its application in this case, however, is particularly concerning because it has previously only been used for common civilian crimes, and has never been applied to crimes against humanity. Aside from the juridical questions, the symbolic weight of this shift is significant in Argentina because of what it means in terms of the government’s stance towards state violence and repression during the dictatorship.
Local human rights organizations feel that this “opens the door” to impunity for perpetrators—potentially sparking a wave of appeals that may result in reduced sentences for hundreds of convicted perpetrators. The idea of lessening a sentence for such grave crimes—particularly ones that still weigh so heavily on the public conscience—is appalling to many sectors of civil society, including human rights organizations and labor unions. You can also see this on the ground –a taxidriver, for instance, recently put a sign in his window referencing Astiz, known as the “Angel of Death” that said, “I’m afraid Astiz might get into my cab.”
The fear of confronting or even calling out former abusers had been the case for decades. After democracy returned to Argentina in 1983, a brief period of reckoning followed with the establishment of important mechanisms for moving forward like the CONADEP Truth Commission and the Trial of the Juntas. However, the amnesty laws put into effect shortly thereafter heralded a period of broad-based impunity that only solidified the resolve of human rights groups like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and others to keep public memory active through protests advocated against impunity. Nunca Más—“Never Again”—the title of the truth commission report, was also the popular protest call to both remember and to demand justice, so that the crimes of that period would never happen again.
The idea of “never again” came closer to fruition over the last 15 years. Under the presidency of Néstor Kirchner, the amnesty laws were overturned, allowing trials of perpetrators to begin; the first such trial took place in 2006 focusing on Miguel Etchecolatz . Memory also became formally included in the political discourse on human rights. March 24th, the date of the coup that brought in the dictatorship, became an official holiday—the National Day of Memory. The ESMA, a former torture center, became El Espacio de Memoria – a Space of Memory.
Since then, there have been over 100 trials and almost 600 convictions. The impact of the new Supreme Court ruling renews a common fear—a fear that these reforms may become eroded as the perpetrators convicted of crimes increasingly follow precedent and seek lessened sentences. These concerns are compounded by some changing attitudes toward the legacy of the dictatorship.
As Federico Gaitán Hairabedian, a human rights attorney and Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, told me, this recent ruling represents a “180 degree change” in how the Supreme Court is treating crimes against humanity. By placing these crimes on an equivalent level as common crimes, the court normalizes the atrocities, which represent a “departure from international human rights law.” This is out of step with international jurisprudence on crimes against humanity. It is also a potential blow to global efforts against impunity that would challenge what Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón recently called the “historic achievements” of Argentina’s system. These are important concerns, even as local courts are now beginning to challenge the application of this law.
In addition to the ruling’s juridical impact, Argentines are concerned about the implications for other narratives about the dictatorship, including rhetoric that questions the number of disappeared (human rights groups have long stood by the number of 30,000, but there are those who question that, including President Macri). Some have also noted that this 2×1 ruling has been oddly coincidental with other calls for reconciliation.
The response of the Argentine public has been tremendous, most recently this week’s mobilization of civil society, including family members of victims organizations, other human rights groups and labor unions. Many others have also voiced their opposition after some delay. Argentines are responding as they always have to the violence of that time and what followed with the large protest filling the plazas facing the High Courts and the central Plaza de Mayo, and with posters circulating the familiar call for “Never Again.”
The 2×1 decision, then, represents another critical juncture for Argentina. What is at stake is accountability and justice in the aftermath of state violence and the ongoing significance of memory to effect meaningful change. In response to Wednesday’s protest, Argentina’s
“Never Again” was the title of the Truth Commission report issued in 1984, which became a bestseller in those years. And almost forty years after the end of Argentina’s nightmare experience with dictatorship, “Never Again” has taken on new meaning. In addition to the victims of the dictatorship —the disappeared—protestors now worry about the disappearance of their history through the secondary violence of impunity—the slow erosion of official accounting that inevitably shifts the scope of what has been established as truth. Once again, the act of remembering is at the forefront of public conscience as an important tool for a civil society intent on demanding justice.
Natasha Zaretsky, Ph.D. is a cultural anthropologist, leads the Truth in the Americas project for the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University.