December 14, 2017
Friday, November 25, 2016

‘My resignation has to do with a political issue — I know that is the case’

Prosecutor Mercedes Soiza Reilly says that she didn’t receive pressure from the national government but warns about the dismantling of attempts to tackle human rights violations
By Santiago Del Carril
Herald Staff
The country’s largest ongoing human rights trial is at a standstill after lead prosecutor Mercedes Soiza Reilly resigned from her post under pressure.

The largest ongoing legal case in the country — the third ESMA “mega-trial” investigating crimes against humanity committed against thousands of victims who were forcibly detained under the last military dictatorship (1976-1983) at the clandestine detention centre at the former ESMA Naval Mechanics School — is at a standstill. And it has been ever since state prosecutor Mercedes Soiza Reilly resigned her post last July.
If such a development was a lone, single incident, perhaps it would not garner much attention. But Soiza Reilly’s decision to stand down came after she was pressured to resign, following complaints from the Judicial Employees’ Union that were made against her regarding the alleged harassment of employees.
It’s a situation that echoes the fate of Judge Carlos Rozanski, who led the La Plata crimes against humanity trial and stepped down on October 20 after being accused of similar wrongdoing.
Although President Mauricio Macri’s administration has publicly declared its support for human rights investigations, emphasising that they are a state policy, several other incidents have sparked concern among human rights activists.
In an interview with the Herald, Soiza Reilly — who now is part of the Attorney General Alejandra Gils Carbó’s unit probing state terrorism under the Junta’s leadership — discussed her experience of leading the ESMA trial, the pressures she and others had to endure, and what is necessary in order for such trials to continue and why they are important.

When did you begin participating in trials addressing crimes against humanity?
About seven years ago when the Attorney General’s Office appointed me to the Automotores Orletti (clandestine detention centre) crimes against humanity trial. This case investigated a clandestine detention centre that held political activists from other countries who had escaped to Argentina before the 1976 coup d’état. Uruguayans, Chileans, Bolivians, amongst others, were held there. Reciprocal agreements with other countries supported our investigation, in concrete terms by collaborating with the declassification of documents from the Armed Forces of countries in the Southern Cone region. In this trial four military officials, who had worked with the former SIDE Intelligence agency military squadrons, were convicted.
I also participated in the crimes against humanity investigation in Mar del Plata, where we investigated a repressive circle that functioned in the Argentine Navy, the Coast Guard, the Marines. Large operations had taken place there under the last military dictatorship, which they would call “sweep operations.” They would comb the large cities looking for political activists who had escaped to the coast to avoid being captured and murdered. State terrorism was implemented at a large scale there. It was from here that we began to learn about the contacts between the Navy and the ESMA Navy Mechanics School, (the largest clandestine detention centre in the country during the last military dictatorship).

Could you tell me more about your involvement in the ESMA trial?
Well, with Dr. Guillermo Freire we began to lead the ESMA trial, the mega-trial that is the biggest trial in the history of Argentina, where for the first time they joined together many different cases into one. Not only by bringing the over 800 victims together, but also by investigating different leads and bringing together a group of the indicted defendants. Hundreds of witnesses took the stand.

Was it difficult gathering evidence?
After many years of impunity, the evidence was stored away for a long time. For some time the justice system hadn’t investigated these crimes. Family testimony was very important, because they had conducted their own investigations and saved their evidence among their personal belongings. And all this evidence is demonstrated in the trials. When a family member brings a letter to trial, for example, it can be fundamental in determining who committed the crime. In our final arguments, we explained the chain of events and kidnappings thanks to the family members input — it was crucial.

Were there any new leads discovered from your investigations for the third ESMA mega trial?
In our final arguments we were able to present evidence that could contribute to further investigations, giving us the possibility to continue investigating these leads. Not only (regarding) the chain of command in the repression, but also those business associations that worked hand-in-hand with the apparatus of power. There were also new cases and victims that appeared; those who hadn’t denounced what had happened to them because maybe they were kidnapped for only a week. There were also new cases of forced disappearances — some families had denounced it before the authorities but it wasn’t known until now that they had been held inside the ESMA.
The Attorney General’s Office is willing to continue advancing in these crimes against humanity trials. It doesn’t have to do with political changes, it has to do with crimes against humanity that were committed, and the state has an international obligation to investigate.

Has the government put any pressure on the investigations?
No, not at the Attorney General’s Office. We don’t receive any pressure. But what is true is that we need to ensure that the institutions that make crimes against humanity trials possible aren’t dismantled. For example, programmes that provide assistance to victims need to continue (being funded) because they are crucial for the trials, as they offer key evidence. We need to guarantee they don’t take apart the human rights programmes that continue to work to this day.

Weren’t there areas inside the Security Ministry and Central Bank, which investigated crimes against humanity, that were dismantled?
It’s not very clear to me which organisations were dismantled, but what is certain is that if that is so, this decision should be reversed because it’s dangerous. They created an investigative team, and we need to support them and demand that they can continue. With the Defence Ministry, for example, we worked with groups that investigated and that continue to now, allowing us to obtain declassified documents.

Has the progress in crimes against humanity investigations slowed, in comparison to a year ago?
The areas in the Defence Ministry are running the same, but I know that some groups were removed inside the Security Ministry, and this hurt some investigations. Those groups should be reinstated so they can continue.
The Argentine government is responsible not only at a national but at a global level. International organisations are watching us to make sure we don’t violate not only our constitutional rights, but also the international treaties we signed. Argentina should continue being a leader in human rights, like they were in these past 12 years of investigations. Argentina is a world leader in the prosecution of state terrorism.

Federal Judge Carlos Rozanski resigned from a crimes against humanity investigation he was leading in La Plata after receiving what he called pressure from the media and claims of workplace harassment against him, which he alleged were false. Did you also receive pressure when you were the state prosecutor in charge of the ESMA mega trial?
Yes, we all suffered attacks, and pressures.

Like what?
Well it’s public (knowledge) that they filed several complaints against me. The Judicial Employees’ Labour Union, led by Julio Piumato, pressured me at a personal and professional level. I decided to leave due to these personal reasons last July. I’m really sad about what happened, but this has to do with a political issue — I know that is the case. I will not lower my head; we need to continue with these investigations.
I‘ve worked in Argentina’s justice system for 17 years and this is the first time that have suffered these type of pressures.
This should be a wake-up call because if these incidents continue to occur it could put the trials in jeopardy. And if that is the case, it could affect Argentina’s international commitments.
I received support from human rights organisations for my work in the trials. They sent a letter to support of me. These things shouldn’t happen, but it occurs. And we need to face them.

Is it normal for a prosecutor not to see out their trial?
No, it’s not normal. There were pressures.

Have other prosecutors or judges been pressured to remove themselves from crimes against humanity cases?
Well, you have Rozanksi. I think something similar has also happened in the provinces. In Santiago del Estero, for example, the Federal Criminal Cassation court removed Judge Ramos Padilla, Perez Villalobos and Maria Alicia Noli over an alleged conflict of interest.

When did you first start to face these pressures?
In June, 2016.
And what happened exactly?
The Judicial Employee’s Union intervened impulsively in an internal conflict in the office, ending any possibility of dialogue or reconciliation, with a precise and clear political objective, which is to destabilise the current administration inside the Attorney General’s Office, led by Alejandra Gils Carbó.

Is this why (the trial) has been delayed for so long?
The trial was already delayed. I’m not sure why, but the trial is moving very slowly. While I’m not there any more, there are other prosecutors in charge. But everything seems to be connected. For these past four years we worked very hard (and) in one moment everything went from being very good to going all wrong. That’s how I feel.
I made a personal decision when removing myself from the case, but I continue working on the investigations, with the other officials in the Attorney General’s Office. We aren’t giving up, crimes against humanity trials will continue.

What is the Attorney General Office’s role in crimes against humanity investigations and human rights?
The Attorney General’s Office created units specialised in investigating crimes against humanity that continue to function to this day. Under Article 120, we are an independent institution from the Executive power. We shouldn’t be facing any pressures. But it can’t be denied that the Attorney General’s Office is being denounced now, over whatever reason. This is public knowledge. By politically attacking the head of our organisation (Gils Carbó), they are trying to modify the law so that politics can enter the organisation.
She shouldn’t be removed because she is doing things well. Not only did she form units specialised in investigating crimes against humanity, but also drug-trafficking, violence against women etc. The units investigate criminal activities that are of interest to society. She created a programme to provide legal assistance to those who don’t have access to resources to file a criminal complaint, in order to make it easier for them to denounce crimes. The poor normally have to resolve their disputes another way. She created units that are specialised in giving assistance to lower-income neighbourhoods. How are we doing things badly? I don’t see it.

Will there be another ESMA mega trial, or will other trials begin due to the evidence uncovered in your investigation?
Yes, the trials will continue. What needs to be investigated in more detail is how the former military officials seized assets from kidnapped victims that were held in clandestine detention centres. This happened in Mar del Plata, in Jujuy, and in BA City. These cases should start next year but the judges have the real power in bringing this to trial as fast as possible. We can only recommend that they be taken to trial. They schedule the hearings and are in charge of making sure there aren’t delays.

How did military repressors make money off of their victims?
The case that most called my attention was when they seized their property. One thing is the material goods seized when they kidnapped their victims, because the military squadrons were technically permitted to seize the victims’ goods (they would claim it was evidence). But there was also a plan on a much larger scale, which had to do with the appropriation of assets such as their apartments and the creation of companies and finance firms.

Did this happen a lot?
Yes, there are at least 20 cases that will be brought to trial.

But couldn’t the victims have protested or filed a criminal complaint about their missing property before. For example, after the dictatorship during the 1980s?
Yes, they denounced such things but they never were able to take it to trial. It’s very difficult because the person who owns their stolen properties now most likely purchased it on good faith. This is because the property had been transferred so many times between property owners, that the last one to own it has nothing to do with the crime. So, the victim won’t be able to reclaim the property from the current owner, but he can claim reparations or a refund from the state for the property seized.

Did any of the defendants indicted in the ESMA trial provide any new information in their
Very little. I believe that when the defendant testifies, it’s in order to exercise his right to defence. Their testimony isn’t used to incriminate them. We use a lot of evidence from past testimonies and documents, that’s why the declassification of the ministries’ archives is very important. This is very valuable to the trials because it shows the structure of repression, which we triangulate with the victims’ testimonies.

Do you think that some of the indicted will break their “pact of silence,” as many are elderly and have already been incarcerated for other charges?
For now, No. It’s a pact of silence. The only official who spoke publicly was former Navy captain Adolfo Scilingo. We also have documents from officials or conscripts that gave testimony to the CONADEP or international human rights organizations, which was used to prove the culpability of the repressors. The confessions in the CONADEP files, for example, was evidence given by an anonymous witness against the Navy leaders at the time. Giving a description of who was responsible, this is all very important. We needed to review these documents first.

What about the Vatican providing access to archival material from that era to victim’s families?
Hopefully we will find something in these documents involving the communications between the Armed Forces and the Vatican. That can confirm what happened to the victims. If the Vatican did anything for the victims, or if the military asked for collaboration to cover up the crimes.

Do you think many Church officials were complicit in the crimes against humanity committed by the dictatorship?
Yes, of course, that complicity is proven in the trials also. All the Armed Forces had military chaplains. We need to celebrate the Vatican’s move towards declassifying archives from that era. Maybe new leads and evidence can be found, allowing us to reconstruct the history of these incidents. Hopefully it’s more than just letters asking for help and clemency from relatives of the victims, they are already in the trial, as the families have saved them.

Do you think that there exists an archive hidden somewhere that has a list of the total number of forced disappearances?
Yes, we always had that sensation. We don’t have enough evidence to demonstrate that it existed but in the ESMA there existed the COPESE (the Permanent Commission of Special Affairs) that started to function in 1981-82. They are reported to have preserved all the files that existed from the clandestine extermination camps on microfilms. While the commission helped them hide their crimes, they also helped them preserve the files. We hope to find these microfilms. I think it exists. The Defence Ministry archives indicate that they existed.

Is it very hard to investigate or follow leads because of the few resources at your disposable? For example, in the ESMA trial, there are only a couple of lawyers that are suppose to represent 800 or so victims?
If the state wants to guarantee that these trials prosper they need to guarantee the capacity and size of the teams. The investigative teams need to be much bigger each time.

It seems as though the La Nación newspaper, every two or three months, publishes an editorial criticising the crimes against humanity trials. Why do you think this is?
I don’t know why. Many people give opinions about the trials without going to them. They (La Nación) speak of revenge against humanity (lesa venganza), but when you go to the trials, you just see the evidence and that there is no vengeance. We investigate because there is evidence. To inform is easy, but you have to do it well.
The constitutional rights of the defendant in the judicial process are guaranteed and we even apply the laws that applied at that time. The defendants are allowed to speak in their defence, to have lawyers, provide the evidence or witnesses they want. I don’t see how this can be vengeance, it is the same as a trial for any other common citizen.

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