The Uruguayan Congress passed early Thursday a law that eliminates the effects of the 1986 Amnesty Law (also known as Expiry Law), which protected police and military personnel from being prosecuted for human rights violations, and repeals a statute of limitations that would have prevented victims from filing criminal complaints as of 1 November.
“With the approval of this new law, Uruguay’s Congress has taken an historical step forward in the fight against impunity for past crimes,” said Guadalupe Marengo, Deputy Director of Americas Program at Amnesty International.
The 1986 Ley de Caducidad de la Pretensión Punitiva del Estado (also Amnesty Law or Expiry Law) was passed after Uruguay returned to democratic rule, giving the President the final say over which cases of human rights violations could be investigated.
The measure shielded police and military personnel from prosecution for torture, killings, enforced disappearances and other serious human rights violations committed during an 11-year period of authoritarian rule up to 1985.
The bill was a match to the amnesty law which benefited all the urban guerrillas in jail or on the loose for blood crimes committed from 1964 onwards, basically taking arms and appealing to violence to bring down democratically elected governments.
This as such has been repeatedly confessed publicly in Uruguay and overseas by the current president Jose Mujica, a former urban guerrilla leader who spent over a decade in jail and in 2009 was elected as the candidate for the left leaning catch-all coalition, Broad Front, which includes political organizations of former guerrilla groups.
“We were not terrorists, we were an armed political party wanting to overthrow the government”, has confessed Mujica.
The military took over in Uruguay in June 1973 following the collapse of the political system dwarfed by a weak political coalition, rebellious unions and urban guerrillas who concentrated their fire power on military officers to force the reaction of the armed forces: ‘the worst, the best’ was the motto of the Latin American guerillas in the sixties and seventies, believing they could then organize uprisings against dictatorships.
In 1973 as the Uruguayan ruling coalition rapidly eroded several political groups, leaders from the left wing parties and respected left wing publications hailed the military when they showed a nationalist vein promising to end corruption and a quick return to democracy insinuating that the 1971 presidential elections had been rigged.
Speculating with a fresh call of elections many political groups supported the coup with their silence and inactivity. However the following day the military were after the alleged ‘left-wing’ supporters and stayed in office until 1984.
In a few months the military rapidly eliminated the remnants of the urban guerrilla movement called Tupamaros and caught most leaders of the communist and other radical organizations, whom they considered enemies of the ‘fatherland’, most of them tortured, jailed and in some cases made to disappear.
In the early eighties when the tide was changing for military regimes in South America, representatives from Uruguayan political parties began negotiations with the Army for a return to democracy. Following two years of negotiations an understanding was reached which included a matching amnesty for guerrillas and supporters and military and police officers allegedly involved in human rights abuses.
The participants in the negotiations included representatives from the left inclined coalition Broad Front currently in office, and as agreed the first bill to be approved by the new congress (March 1985) was an ample amnesty for all urban guerrillas and supporters, even those involved in blood crimes.
However there was resistance to extend the same benefits to the military and police forces and was only reached after much negotiations in 1986 with the name of Ley de Caducidad de la Pretensión Punitiva del Estado (also Amnesty Law or Expiry Law).
The 1986 was ratified in two referendums in 1989 and 2009 and a further attempt to annul the effects of the bill was narrowly defeated in Congress last May 2011.
That month the Uruguayan Supreme Court concluded that two former military officials could not be charged with enforced disappearances because the crime was not incorporated into domestic law until 2006 and could not be applied retroactively. They were instead convicted of “aggravated murder”, an ordinary criminal offence.
Treating human rights violations committed during the military government as ordinary criminal offences rather than crimes against humanity meant that the cases were subject to a statute of limitations, which would have expired on 1 November. The new law removes this limitation.
The bill passed both houses with the only support of the ruling coalition and minimal vote difference. President Mujica has said he will promulgate the bill before November first but also admitted that there is room for an unconstitutional consultation to Uruguay’s Supreme Court.