On Wednesday November 29, 2017, Argentina marked another important date in its human rights history. After five years of hearings, the ESMA mega-trial sentenced 29 perpetrators of state violence to life in prison, and 19 others to 8-25 years for their role in the brutal repression during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
The trial is historic because of its scope (almost 800 victims and 65 indictments) and its duration (five years). But in many ways, the process of justice started long before this trial, with human rights groups calling for truth and accountability beginning during the years of the dictatorship, and continuing through periods of impunity and amnesty. When the military government ended in 1983, Argentina began a national reckoning, led by the CONADEP Truth Commission (one of the world’s first), as a first step toward establishing the true history of what took place. (A more systematic trial process, some feared, would lead to another coup). Yet, despite the commission and the Trial of the Juntas, amnesty laws and pardons soon heralded a period of impunity in the 1990s, with perpetrators of state violence allowed to continue their lives without paying for their crimes. This only began to change over the last fifteen years as the government repealed old amnesty laws and began new trials. These later trials (more than 100 trials, with over 800 convicted) offered the survivors and family members of the victims the chance to have their stories heard in a public forum and gain official acknowledgement—a vehicle for social repair that is as important as these juridical processes.
Though there have been many trials, the significance of the ESMA mega-trial—particularly its symbolic importance for Argentina—cannot be overstated. This has to do with the particular role ESMA—or Navy School of Mechanics—played within the history of political repression. At the ESMA, the military regime systematically tortured an estimated 5,000 Argentines in a clandestine detention center located right within the boundaries of Buenos Aires. Some of the tortured were thrown into the River Plate from planes, the infamous death flights. The prosecution of those responsible for the death flights was a significant part of the trial, as it is the first juridical process acknowledging the government’s use of death flights. Two of the convicted, Mario Daniel Arru y Alejandro Domingo D’Agostino, were pilots of these death flights.
Federico Gaitán Hairabedian is a human rights attorney working with CELS (Center for Legal and Social Studies), which represents various human rights groups in the trial. He has been there from the beginning of the ESMA trial to the final ruling on Wednesday, together with the human rights activists, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and others holding images of their disappeared family members. In reflecting on the significance of this trial, he told me, “For 40 years, human rights groups have been fighting for justice—today justice heard them. And through this, it is possible to find reparation.” As one Mother of the Plaza de Mayo said to him, “Today, we have to celebrate. We have to celebrate justice.” For Gaitán Hairabedian, the powerful significance of this ruling, in addition to holding the perpetrators accountable, is that it demonstrates that state crimes and the use of violence against citizens will not remain in impunity.
The trial also offers the promise of rule of law—of a system of retributive justice that will indeed hold those responsible for crimes against humanity accountable. But it is also important to position this moment in its history. It didn’t begin only five years ago; in many ways, it began during the dictatorship itself, when human rights groups like the Mothers marched to demand justice and truth and not simply allow their children to remain “disappeared”.
While the trial represents an important step forward for Argentina, it also takes place within an uneven terrain of justice in relation to political violence. One notable case, the 1994 AMIA Bombing, remains unsolved (and its perpetrators free) after almost 25 years, with a new trial currently underway focusing on the obstruction of justice. Furthermore, despite this week’s landmark ruling, other important cases remain open. This includes the recent disappearance of Santiago Maldonado during a Mapuche protest in August (he was last seen after fleeing a confrontation with the Gendarmería). Maldonado’s body was recently found in the Chubut River, two months after he went missing. He was buried less than a week ago, and while the immediate cause of death was found to be drowning, the role of the state remains a pressing question. And just days ago, Rafael Nahuel, a 21-year-old Mapuche, was shot dead during a confrontation with state police in Bariloche, during a protest over indigenous land claims.
Argentina’s contemporary challenges shouldn’t take away from the significance of the ESMA ruling, which is a milestone of justice and accountability for crimes against humanity in Argentina after over 40 years of advocacy. As Gaitán Hairabedian told me, the fight against impunity is not always linear. There are advances and disappointments, moments of impunity, and moments of justice. But overall, Gaitán Hairabedian’s hope is that the trial suggests that justice will come, even if the process might involve some setbacks.
Perhaps we can hope that, just as the CONADEP Truth Commission became a model for transitional justice and repair in Argentina and beyond, this week’s ESMA ruling can also serve to reinforce the juridical process in all cases of state violence, and not just for crimes of the past. In this way, the ESMA trial is not just about Argentina’s past, but very much about its future as well.