'I Have Been Exchanged for the Abductors of My Children' : Argentina: In a charade of reconciliation, victims of the 'dirty war' are 'pardoned' along with their murderers.

Translated by Louise B. Popkin

In mid-November, a number of prominent U.S. writers and intellectuals urged President Saul Menem of Argentina not to pardon the military officers who are still in prison serving sentences for violations of human rights committed under the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

Among the thousands of Argentines who are victims of those years' "dirty war" is the poet Juan Gelman, who is now living in Mexico. After he wrote the following commentary, his son's remains were identified. Gelman returned to Buenos Aires for the burial last Sunday.

On Oct. 7, President Saul Menem issued pardons for 216 military personnel and civilians who had been found guilty of crimes ranging from genocide to attempted coups to responsibility for the disaster of Malvinas (the war with Britain over the islands known in English as the Falklands). Menem also pardoned 64 other persons with presumed links to "subversion." That pushed to its limits the "two devils theory," formulated by the writer Ernesto Sabato while he was chairman of the commission appointed by then-President Raul Alfonsin to investigate human-rights violations committed under the dictatorship. In Sabato's theory, the "dirty war" was a struggle between ultra-right extremists and leftist subversives in a totally polarized Argentine society.

I was horrified to find on the list of supposedly leftist subversives the names of four members of the Uruguayan armed forces. They had long been identified as torturers who worked with the Argentine authorities in the death camp known as Automotores Orletti because of its location in an old auto-repair shop in Buenos Aires. It was in that camp that my son Marcelo "disappeared" in 1976, along with his wife, Claudia. Both were 20 years old at the time and awaiting the birth of their first child--my grandchild, who today is heaven knows where.

I was just as horrified to see on that list the names of "disappeared" persons, such as Maria Alicia Morsillo and Graciela Alberti, and of Norberto Gomez, whose death is a matter of public record, complete with official death certificate, and for whose murder--among others--former Gen. Jorge Videla was found guilty in a court of law.

Nor was I less horrified to find my own name on that list.

It strikes me that the listing of dead and "disappeared" among the pardoned "'subversives"--for the obvious purpose of padding the list--has a symbolic value: With the exception of the Uruguayan torturers, the living among us are thus cast as representatives of 30,000 "disappeared" who bear no responsibility for the genocidal acts of the dictatorship or for its surrender of national sovereignty. In fact, what we are "pardoned" for is our struggle against that surrender, on behalf of social justice and national liberation.

Therein lies the real difference between the two lists: not in the number of pardons issued (which favors the military) but in the nature of the pardon itself. In essence, I have been exchanged for the abductors of my children and of the thousands of other young people who are now my children as well.

Such an exchange is unacceptable to me. Just as unacceptable is the "reconciliation" with murderers and torturers proposed by former guerrilla leader Mario Firmenich. Both are perverse indications that an already sick society has grown sicker.

Dr. Menem has explained that the pardons already granted--and others still to come--are necessary in the interest of national reconciliation. In reality, they are necessary to appease the armed forces. Dr. Menem's explanation is part of a rationale in which logic becomes a means of evading moral obligations. Any rationale that is devoid of ethical considerations is the antithesis of humanity.

The decrees issued by Dr. Menem (himself a lawyer) granting pardons to murderers and torturers place in jeopardy not just moral obligations but the rule of law itself. And when laws can do no right, perhaps it is fitting that they bar no wrong. At least, that is what Shakespeare thought.

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