The times they are a changin’

“An injustice committed against one person is a threat to all,” wrote Montesquieu more than 250 years ago. It has taken too long for this axiom to be given the credence it deserves.

In Brazil, the Senate has approved a truth commission to investigate human rights abuses from 1946 to 1988, including those committed under military rule. However, an amnesty law, passed in 1979 and upheld in 2010 by the Supreme Court, means neither military officials accused of torture nor left-wing guerrillas accused of violence can face prosecution.

A military government ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. It began with a coup d’état led by the Armed Forces against the democratically elected government of left-wing President João Goulart. Over 21 years, some 500 people were killed or disappeared, a far smaller number than in neighbouring Argentina. But thousands of Brazilians were tortured, exiled or deprived of their political rights. A truth commission was proposed under the previous government and, at the time, military chiefs feared it was an attempt to circumvent the amnesty law.

In Guatemala, former military ruler General Oscar Mejia Victores has been sent to hospital to see if he is well enough to stand trial on genocide charges. Mejia, now 80, is accused of ordering massacres in Mayan villages during Guatemala’s 1960-96 civil war. His lawyers say he recently suffered a stroke and is not physically or mentally capable of answering the charges. Echoes here of the attempted prosecution in 2000 in Britain of Chilean dictator Pinochet, who was controversially released on medical grounds by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, without facing trial. On returning to Chile, he triumphantly got up from his wheelchair to the acclaim of supporters.

Oscar Mejia was arrested in Guatemala City in October 2011 on charges of genocide. He ruled Guatemala 1983-86 after seizing power in a coup, also serving as an army general and defence minister during the long civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people were killed as the army battled left-wing guerrillas. The report of the UN-backed truth commission (1999) found that the security forces were responsible for the vast majority of killings. It also concluded that the massacre of Mayan communities accused of supporting the rebels amounted to acts of genocide.

In Argentina, former naval officer Alfredo Astiz has been jailed for life for crimes against humanity under military rule (1976-83). Astiz – known as the “Blond Angel of Death” – was found guilty of torture, murder and forced disappearance. Among his victims were two French nuns, Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet, and the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights group, Azucena Villaflor, Esther Ballestrino and Maria Ponce. Astiz worked at the Naval Mechanical School in Buenos Aires – known as Esma – which was a secret torture and killing centre set up by the military.

Astiz was indicted after the 1983 return of democracy, so he benefited from an amnesty law adopted in 1987 to quell a military rebellion. Over the next decade he was pursued by European Courts – France convicted him in absentia in 1990, followed by unsuccessful extradition requests made by Spain, Sweden, and Italy – but he escaped punishment by remaining in Argentina. In 2003, former President Nestor Kirchner made human rights a centerpiece of his administration and oversaw the repeal of the amnesty law. Astiz is one of 259 people who have since been convicted of human rights abuses committed under the dictatorship.

In 1964, just before the first of these military dictatorships started, Bob Dylan released his album The Times They Are a-Changin’, which many feel captured the spirit of social and political improvement that characterized the 1960s. Ironically, for many the times changed for the worse. It has taken far too long for those who instigated and carried out crimes against humanity in this period to be called to account. Yet, finally, the shield of impunity has cracked.

“As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.”

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