The judiciary during the Repression
(Never Again) - Report of Conadep
C. Disappearance of lawyers
A fundamental pillar of the constitutional system of individual rights and guarantees is undoubtedly the inviolable 'right to the defence in court of a person and his rights' (Article 18 of the Constitution). This applies to all citizens. The most perfect array of freedoms and the most exhaustive catalogue of rights are meaningless if they do not have the guarantee of an efficient defence when under attack.
The defence lawyer plays a central role in these guarantees. He is the 'trusted lawyer' of traditional jurisprudence and his importance in the administering of justice was recognized in Argentine law when it placed him on a par with the judges in terms of the respect and consideration due to him. Without his backing, his representation and his professional skills, any victim of the abuse of power is seriously hindered in his attempt to obtain judicial protection.
This is in fact what happened in Argentina. As just one more technique in the machinery of State terrorism, the harshest reprisals fell on the lawyers who defended the victims of the state. Arbitrary detention, assault, ill-treatment by the security organizations, disappearance and death of defence lawyers were everyday events in the early years of the military regime.
The Military began by identifying defence lawyers with their defendants. Anyone who supported or merely inquired about an assumed subversive was suspected of connivance with subversion, and anyone actually defending 'terrorists' was considered a member of the same illicit organization until he could prove the contrary. In most cases he was not given the time to do this.
Such an aberrant criterion is absurd since it would actually mean that any lawyer defending someone accused of murder would himself have homicidal tendencies. Taken further still, this view would leave a valuable professional skill in the hands of the depraved and unscrupulous and, consequently, condemn the accused to a position of total defencelessness.
The facts indicate that the concept of the independence of a lawyer exercising his profession changed substantially during the military dictatorship. With predictable consequences, they associated the political idea and motivations of the defendant with the defence counsel, and turned him into an accomplice of or accessory to serious crimes.
In other cases, absolute and arbitrary power in the hands of the forces of repression was used to persecute worthy professionals who steadfastly defended their clients' interests, and also to punish by means of false accusations lawyers who were simply defending labour rights.
The results are evident. Lawyers' associations estimate that twenty-three of their colleagues were assassinated for political motives after 1975. Over and above this traumatic situation, 109 lawyers were kidnapped and their fate is still unknown. Ninety per cent of these 'disappearances' took place between March and December of 1976. More than 100 lawyers were imprisoned - the majority without trial - and a much larger number retained their freedom, and perhaps saved their own lives by going into exile abroad. The exact number is difficult to ascertain.
The following cases illustrate, albeit partially, our case: