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The Wheels of Justice…

2012 August 1

The Mills of the Gods Grind Slow,
but They Grind Exceeding Fine…

Sorry for the cliché (these days more commonly quoted as “The Wheels of Justice…”), but it’s what comes to mind when confronted with the intolerably slow process of prosecuting the worst human rights violations of the past century. Still, there have been some recent victories:

LIBERIA/SIERRA LEONE: In late May, the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, became the first head of state convicted by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison by the International Criminal Court, for his role in atrocities committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone during the 1990s. The presiding judge, Richard Lussick, said Taylor’s actions amounted to “aiding and abetting, as well as planning, some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”

The sentence today does not replace amputated limbs; it does not bring back those who were murdered. It does not heal the wounds of those who were raped or forced to become sexual slaves.
                                     — Chief Prosecutor Brenda Hollis

ARGENTINA: In early July, former dictators Rafael Videla and Reynaldo Bignone were convicted of overseeing the systematic theft of babies born to parents imprisoned in the 1970’s, during the country’s “dirty war.” Videla’s 50-year sentence, and Bignone’s 15-years, however, are essentially symbolic, since both men area already serving life sentences for torture and murder during their rule. Videla (pictured) is now 86, Bignone, 84. Nine other military and police officials were also convicted in the case.
            During the dictatorship, hundreds of children were taken from detainees and given to police or military families. In some cases pregnant prisoners were held until they delivered their babies, and were then murdered or “disappeared.”
            The famed “Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” have helped over a hundred of the stolen children to reclaim their identities through DNA testing, and estimate there may be hundreds more yet unidentified.
            In recognition of the need to offer closure to the victims of dictatorship-era crimes, Argentina has taken steps to speed up their normal judicial process before the perpetrators die of old age. Jonathan Gilbert wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “It is an attempt to not only bring justice, but a sense of closure to a tragic period in the country’s recent past.” 

In the past, cases involved huge volumes of evidence, and victims were required to testify on several occasions. Trials have since been expedited by allowing judges to combine cases. Victims may also testify just once for multiple defendants. While only two convictions were brought in 2006, there were more than 100 in 2010.

CHILE: Two former Chilean military officials, air force colonels Ramon Caceres and Edgar Ceballos, have been arrested and charged with being “co-authors of the crime of torture that caused the death” of General Alberto Bachelet 1974. Bachelet served under, and was loyal to, President Salvador Allende, who was deposed in the coup which led to the military dictatorship of 1973-1990, led by General Augusto Pinochet.
            General Bachelet died following six months of interrogation and torture in military prison. He was the father of Michelle Bachelet, who became Chile’s first female president in 2006. Both Michelle Bachelet and her mother Angela Jeria were also imprisoned and tortured by the military before escaping to Australia.

CHAD:  Chad’s former dictator, Hissene Habré, has been called “Africa’s Pinochet.” In July, the United Nations International Criminal Court ordered that Habré must be put on trial “without delay” by Senegal, where he currently lives. However, this is only the latest of years of attempts to try Habré for the estimated 40,000 political murders and 200,000 case of torture during his reign, and it’s unclear whether Senegal will choose to cooperate this time.  
Under Habré, “The Chadian government applied a deliberate policy of terror in order to discourage opposition of any kind,” according to Amnesty International. According to human rights groups cited in the BBC report, “Survivors said the most common forms of torture were electric shocks, near-asphyxia, cigarette burns and having gas squirted into their eyes.”

 Sometimes, the torturers would place the exhaust pipe of a vehicle in their victim’s mouth, then start the engine…Some detainees were placed in a room with decomposing bodies, other suspended by their hands or feet, others bound hand and foot. One man said he thought his brain was going to explode when he was subjected to “supplice des baguettes” (torture by sticks), when the victim’s head is put between sticks joined by rope which are then twisted. Others were left to die from hunger in the “diete noire” (starvation diet).

For more about plans to try Hissene Habré, see this report from



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