Uruguay: Moving closer toward accountability?

Lisl Brunner contributes this post on recent developments in Uruguay’s compliance with the Gelman v. Uruguay judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in follow-up to her articleIs Uruguay Foundering on the Path to Accountability?: The Aftermath of the Gelman decision of the Inter-American Court, published this summer in the American Society of International Law newsletter Accountability.


by Lisl Brunner

Uruguay has taken a step closer to holding state agents accountable for crimes committed during its civilian-military regime of 1973-1985 with the passage of a law that restores the state’s power to prosecute and sanction these crimes on October 28, 2011. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the new law represents “significant progress” toward complying with the Gelman judgment of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights of February 2011.

The reaction of state officials to the historic Gelman judgment was initially equivocal. In May, a bill that would have removed the effects of the 1986 amnesty law ab initio failed to pass in the Congress. The Supreme Court also held that forced disappearances committed during the dictatorship could not legally be classified as such, given the recent introduction of the offense into the criminal code. As a result, many concluded that the statutory periods of limitation for these crimes would run on November 1, 2011.

The newly promulgated Law 18.831 has been called a “tacit derogation” of the amnesty law of 1986 (known as the Ley de Caducidad).{{1}} It reestablishes the state’s power to sanction crimes committed by state agents during the pertinent period, tolls the statute of limitations for these crimes while the Ley de Caducidad was in force, and defines the offenses as crimes against humanity. In so doing, the law seeks to remove all potential obstacles to accountability: by abandoning the reference to removing the effects of the amnesty law ab initio, the ruling party strives to defeat the argument that application of the law is retroactive.{{2}} The provisions on crimes against humanity and statutory limitations seem to be a direct response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in May.

In the days following the law’s promulgation, former political prisoners have filed new complaints against state security forces for torture and sexual abuse.{{3}} The prosecution of five former soldiers for the murder of the victim of the Gelman case is also underway.{{4}} Uruguay has touted these events as compliance with the Gelman judgment,{{5}} and they are among the most prompt and decisive steps taken by states parties in order to comply with a ruling of the Inter-American Court. Nevertheless, opponents of the law are expected to challenge its constitutionality, a move that could put a hold on the cases currently going forward and potentially return Uruguay to the state of affairs that existed in May.{{6}} The recent developments are fortuitous, however, and the international community should continue to monitor Uruguay’s progress toward accountability.

[[1]]Senado aprobó proyecto para que no prescriban delitos de la dictadura, El Observador, Oct. 26, 2011, available at http://www.elobservador.com.uy/noticia/211939/senado-aprobo-proyecto-para-que-no-prescriban-delitos-de-la-dictadura/.[[1]]

[[2]]Emiliano Cotelo, Javier Miranda (MEC): “Generemos los espacios del diálogo” para llegar a “la verdad” sobre los crímenes de la dictadura, El Espectador, Oct. 27, 2011, available at http://www.espectador.com/1v4_contenido.php?m=&id=224903&ipag=1. [[2]]

[[3]]Ana Inés Cibils, Avalancha de denuncias por crímenes cometidos en la dictadura en Uruguay, AFP, Oct. 31, 2011.[[3]]

[[4]]Miguel Rojo, Cinco militares retirados procesados en caso Gelman en Uruguay (SCJ), AFP, Oct. 29, 2011, available at http://es-us.noticias.yahoo.com/militares-retirados-procesados-caso-gelman-uruguay-scj-030737583.html.[[4]]

[[5]]Uruguay dice que cumplió con casi todo lo dispuesto por la Corte IDH en el caso Gelman, EFE, Nov. 3, 2011, available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/epa/article/ALeqM5hacf3RABiyj5hw8fdt8_7hmBq17g?docId=1646107.[[5]]

[[6]]Emiliano Cotelo, Javier Miranda (MEC): “Generemos los espacios del diálogo” para llegar a “la verdad” sobre los crímenes de la dictadura, El Espectador, Oct. 27, 2011; Guillermo Pellegrino, Uruguay: Mujica promulgará la ley que pone fin a la amnistía, Clarín, Oct. 28, 2011.[[6]]

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