Inter-American Court Focuses on Forced Disappearances

(IPS)-Manfredo Velásquez was a student at the National Autonomous University of Honduras when he was violently arrested by intelligence agents without a warrant on the afternoon of Sept. 12, 1981.

Several witnesses said the 35-year-old Velásquez, who was under investigation for his leftist ideas, was taken to a police station, accused of several political crimes, and tortured. He was later taken to a military base, where the interrogation continued.

Other sources say Velásquez was killed in December 1981 by his captors, who dismembered his body and dumped the parts along different stretches of the 200-km road that links the northern city of Tela with the capital, Tegucigalpa.

The police and other security bodies denied arresting Velásquez.

The case was brought that same year before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which in 1986 referred it to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Court ordered the Honduran state to pay damages to the victim’s family, which it eventually did.

In another case, some 100 members of the far-right paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), with the collaboration of military personnel, tortured and murdered at least 49 civilians in Mapiripán, a small coca-growing town in the central Colombian province of Meta, from Jul. 15 to 20, 1997.

The victims were cut up with chainsaws and thrown into the Guaviare River. Only 10 of the bodies were ever identified.

The case was also brought before the Inter-American Court, which found the Colombian state responsible for the massacre.

This week in the Uruguayan capital, the Court is meeting to deliberate on similar cases of forced disappearance committed in Bolivia and Panama.

This kind of crime is aimed at "silencing any kind of opposition or protest against the prevailing regime while ensuring its survival by means of the physical annihilation of all of those who are deemed opponents," said Manuel Ventura, an Inter-American Court judge, at Monday’s opening of the Court’s XXXV extraordinary period of sessions in Montevideo.

"It is important to establish that forced disappearance must contain several elements, but at the very least the direct or indirect participation of the authorities, as well as the subsequent denial that they were involved. This distinguishes forced disappearance from the crime of kidnapping," said the Costa Rican judge.

Ventura said forced disappearance also "involves a period of uncertainty regarding the fate of the victim after the abduction, and in many cases that uncertainty is never cleared up."

In addition, he explained that forced disappearance differs from homicide "basically because it is a more complex crime, the implementation of which also involves a chain of crimes, and it is committed exclusively at the initiative of the government, through its agents, whether military or civilian."

At this week’s period of sessions, the Court will hear the testimony of a witness and the final arguments in the case against the state of Bolivia for the forced disappearance of Renato Ticona on Jul. 22, 1980.

Ticona was reportedly detained by an army patrol near a checkpoint in Oruro, in southwestern Bolivia.

The Inter-American Court judges may also hand down a sentence this week in a case against the state of Panama for the forced disappearance of Heliodoro Portugal in 1970, and his alleged extrajudicial execution, as well as the lack of investigation by the authorities.

The leftist activist’s remains were found in 1999 in an unmarked grave discovered on the grounds of a former National Guard base near Panama City.

The Court will also hold a private hearing in Montevideo to be briefed by representatives of the Argentine state on compliance with pending aspects of a sentence ordering the payment of reparations for the disappearance of Walter David Bulacio.

The 17-year-old was picked up in a "razzia" or round-up by the Argentine Federal Police on Apr. 19, 1991 near a stadium where a rock concert was to be held, and thrown into the juvenile section of a police lock-up. Neither a juvenile judge nor Bulacio’s family were informed of his detention.

After his arrest, Bulacio was taken to the hospital, where he told a doctor that he had been beaten by the police. He died on Apr. 26, 1991. Delays and obstacles were thrown in the way of the legal action taken by his family.

The Inter-American Court instructed the Argentine state to investigate and clarify the young man’s death, and to pay reparations to the family.

"In the history of human rights abuses, disappearances are not new. But the systematic and reiterated manner in which they have been used as a weapon designed to bring about not only the actual disappearance of certain persons but to generate a generalised state of anxiety and insecurity is a relatively recent development," said Ventura.

In Latin America, forced disappearance has been used with "exceptional intensity" in recent decades, he added, clearly referring to the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s.

At the opening session, Inter-American Court Judge Diego García Sayán said that of the 180 sentences handed down by the Court in the 25 years since it was created, half have been issued in the last four years alone.

The Peruvian judge, who is currently acting president of the Court because Chilean Judge Cecilia Medina is ill, underscored that the sentences have met with compliance, although he said the process has not been free of difficulties and discrepancies of opinion.

The Court will deliberate in Uruguay until Wednesday, and on Thursday and Friday a training course will be held for public defenders from throughout Latin America.