Uruguay’s Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a law that exempted military and police personnel involved in human rights abuses during the country’s military dictatorship which extended from June 1973 to March 1985.
The Monday unconstitutional ruling comes ahead of next Sunday’s presidential election which also includes a referendum to decide on the annulment of the law which was approved by Congress in 1986 and confirmed by a referendum in 1989.
The Supreme Court ruling only applies to the investigation into the 1974 death in a military barrack of a young Communist teacher Nibia Sabasagaray, allegedly as a consequence of tortures and other abuses suffered while under arrest.
“The unanimous ruling reveals a very solid, forceful position from the Court” said prosecutor Mirtha Guianze. She added that in case “the bill is annulled next Sunday it wouldn’t make sense to present further unconstitutional demands, but if the referendum does not garner sufficient votes, there’s the possibility of following this path”.
The Court justified the ruling arguing that the law violates the independence of the three branches of government and can’t be interpreted as an amnesty law because it was not approved according to constitutional procedures which demanded a special majority vote.
Last February the two chambers of Uruguay’s congress (where the current government has a clear majority) said they were in favour of declaring the 1986 bill, which basically establishes that the Uruguayan state drops its prosecution claims on human rights abuse allegations committed by military and police personnel during the dictatorship, The bill makes it compulsory for the courts to consult with the Executive before beginning any investigation of human rights violations during the period from 1973 to 1985.
Next Sunday’s referendum requires a 50% majority plus one of all votes cast. Public opinion polls show support for the annulment of the law falling from 48% last May to 42% in September, although 17% remain undecided.
An estimated 200 Uruguayans disappeared during the military government, although most of them in Argentina during joint intelligence operations from the neighbouring countries. Currently several high ranking military officers and civilians from the time of the dictatorship, including the president who dissolved congress and opened the way for the coup are in jail.
However it must also be pointed out that different amnesty mechanisms for human rights violators were crucial to enable democracies to emerge from the dictatorship era in South America. But they have been increasingly challenged recently. In the case of Uruguay the bill which was reaffirmed by a plebiscite in 1989 with 54% support was seen initially as a balancing response to a 1985 law granting amnesty to leftist guerrillas accused of attacks.
Prosecutor Guianze said the ruling “showed that we have a totally independent Supreme Court. She recalled that the last vote, in 1989, came at a much different time for Uruguay, when the country was still emerging from its dictatorship.
In the Sabalsagaray case, five or six military figures testified as witnesses, safe from prosecution. Now they can be called back to testify as suspects,” she said.
In the region Brazil, Chile and Paraguay still have dictatorship-era amnesty laws in force, while Argentina has annulled them.