I wrote a diary last July passing along the thoughts of a friend of mine from Argentina regarding the trial of Miguel Etchecolatz (Spanish-language Wikipedia article). Etchecolatz ran several clandestine detention camps and torture centers where 30,000 people 'disappeared' during Argentina's military dictatorship in the 1970s.  In one of those prisons, my friend's sister and brother-in-law were subjected to rape and torture before being summarily executed with gunshots to the head.  They left behind an infant daughter.

My earlier diary described how after 30 years, Etchecolatz was finally being brought to justice, and passed along the words of my friend as he described how painful it was to listen to the trial witnesses describe those long-ago events.

I thought it was time to pass along an update, since one of the most important witnesses in that trial has since disappeared himself...

My previous diary was written while the trial was still in progress.  I'm happy to report that on September 19th, the verdict was passed down: Etchecolatz was convicted of crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, the first time the Argentine courts had applied those particular phrases to the murderous work of the military dictatorship.

Less happy is the fate of one of the key witnesses against Etchecolatz: Julio Jorge Lopez.  Lopez vanished on September 18th...the very day before the verdict was to be announced.  He has not been seen or heard from since, despite the outspoken efforts of Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, human rights groups and the offer of a sizable reward.

Indeed, since the trial of Etchecolatz, written and verbal threats against lawyers, judges, human rights activists and potential witnesses in new trials against the torturers have risen dramatically.  As journalist Marie Trigona reports:

Several activists have been attacked in the midst of mobilizations for Lopez's safe return. In La Plata, Pablo Francello, the boyfriend of an organizer from the human rights group H.I.J.O.S. (Children for Identity Justice and Against Silence and Oblivion) was attacked by three men with ski masks. They cut his arms and warned him to distance himself from human rights activities.

Ariel and María Montes were detained as they left their neighborhood in Greater Buenos Aires in early October, to protest for the release of state intelligence documents at the Interior Ministry. A police car drove up alongside them and while they were detained, the police told them they knew exactly where they were headed to and all about the protest. They were held in a local precinct, where police used light-torture techniques, beating them for four hours.

Ariel Montes says that police today have a clear interest in defending amnesty laws that protect military and police who disappeared and tortured 30,000 people. "They took me to the back of the police precinct where they handcuffed me, beat me and threatened me saying: 'If Julio Lopez went disappeared, we can disappear you too.' They also called me leftie and terrorist. During all of this they beat me. We aren't going to give in to the police intimidation...."

In another case, Ruben Gonzalez, son of a disappeared, was forced into an unmarked car by four men on October 4, who beat him while showing him pictures of activists and asking for their names. The kidnappers took his finger prints before releasing him 2 hours later.

Last December 27th, another witness in a human rights trial vanished in the city of Escobar.   Luis Angel Gerez had testified in the trial of Luis Abelardo Patti, a police officer during the dictatorship who has been accused of numerous human rights abuses and extra-judicial slayings.  Since those years, Patti has served as mayor of Escobar (where the witness disappeared), and has even won a congressional seat.  His past is catching up to him, however...he was barred from taking that ongressional seat due to the charges against him.

Fortunately, Gerez, the witness in Patti's trial, was released and found 48 hours after his disappearance, alive though bruised and with cigarette burns.  He has since been placed into a witness protection program. An early January interview with him in Spanish can be found HERE..  His abductors have not been found.

If you are interested, my friend in Argentina has passed alongan online petition (in Spanish) where you can add your signature to demands that the Argentine government do more to find disappeared witness Julio Jorge Lopez, as well as do more to protect witnesses, bring human rights abusers to trial, and clean out judges and police officers who remain in power despite ties to the old right-wing death squads.

Originally posted to DebtorsPrison on Tue Feb 20, 2007 at 06:53 PM PST.

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