Argentina's Dirty War: How to Defend an Accused Mass Murderer?

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Buenos Aires, Argentina - Prosecutors here in Argentina have framed former Gen. Jorge Olivera Rovere as Argentina's Adolf Eichmann: a mid-level official who dutifully helped execute orders to exterminate opponents of Argentina's last military dictatorship. Yesterday, Rovere's attorneys defended the aging military man, 83, saying that the trial of the former general threatened to disrupt the "social peace" generated by amnesty laws and pardons passed in the 1980's.

Rovere is charged with 120 counts of kidnapping and four homicides for his involvement in Argentina's "Dirty War." After the military coup on March 24, 1976, thousands of people were "disappeared" by Argentina's regime: kidnapped from their homes and offices, taken to clandestine prisons and tortured for information. Many were executed and what happened to their remains is unknown.

During 1976, Rovere was in charge of "anti-subversive" operations for the army in the city of Buenos Aires. The military took power amidst violence between paramilitaries, security forces and leftist guerilla organizations, promising to end violence and fight "subversion." In the army hierarchy, Rovere was two ranks below the ruling general, Jorge Videla.

Rovere was first indicted in 1985, shortly after democracy returned. His case was suspended when former President Carlos Menem pardoned Rovere and other senior officers in 1989 before the trial reached a verdict. In April 2004, however, a federal judge reopened Rovere's case, declaring that the pardon was unconstitutional under international law.

Since February, the court has heard from hundreds of witnesses in the case, meeting twice a week. Beginning in early September, federal prosecutor Felix Crous spent four days summarizing the evidence against Rovere and four of his subordinates who are also charged in the case: Bernardo José Menéndez, Teófilo Saa, Humberto Lobaiza and Felipe Alespeiti. Though no witnesses identified Rovere as their torturer or kidnapper, Crous has argued that Rovere was an essential component of the "anti-subversive" operations in Buenos Aires, coordinating activities of the police, the navy and the army. He has argued that Rovere's rank and circumstantial evidence "convincingly" establish Rovere's guilt. Crous spent two days summarizing more than 200 cases of kidnapping and disappearances that happened in Buenos Aires during Rovere's command.

Yesterday was the defense's turn.

Rovere's lawyers - father and son Norberto and Nicolas Giletta - took turns reading a prepared closing statement for four hours, in a mix of ideological, political, legal and factual arguments. Norberto Giletta, the father, was a judge during the dictatorship and a fierce defender of the military regime. While he was a judge, he ordered the arrest of Robert Cox, the former editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, one of the few papers in Argentina that refused to cave to government threats and censorship. Human rights groups here have accused him of complicity in the violence of the 1970's for his role as a judge.

Norberto Giletta opened the defense with a charged, full frontal assault on victims in the case, telling the court that "we are here today because of leftist forces, national and international." To discredit the testimony against Rovere, he said that the vast majority of witnesses belonged to or had family members in "terrorist" organizations...

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