After 25 years, the victims of the military dictatorship in Uruguay may finally see justice. Prompted by an Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling, the country is in the process of eliminating a law that has shielded from prosecution those responsible for torture, extrajudicial executions, and forced disappearances during the military dictatorship that governed the country from 1973 to 1985.
Uruguay’s Senate recently voted to nullify the infamous Expiry Law, which granted immunity from prosecution to members of the Uruguayan police and armed forces accused of grave violations of human rights committed during the dictatorship. The bill, which was supported by the ruling Broad Front—a coalition of several left-wing parties that has ruled Uruguay since 2005—and opposed by the National and Colorado Parties, awaits final ratification before becoming law.
Under the terms of the Expiry Law—nicknamed the “impunity law” by human rights groups—when a judge received a case involving human rights violations, he or she was required to ask the Executive whether the case could be investigated. Successive presidents routinely said “no” regardless of the nature of the case, and many human rights violations remained in total impunity as a result. This began to change in 2005 with the election of President Tabaré Vásquez of the Broad Front. Vasquez accepted the lawyers’ and prosecutors’ argument that the law did not apply to certain cases. The new interpretation of the law allowed for the conviction of former President Julio María Bordaberry, former Foreign Minister Carlos Blanco, and several high-ranking generals, including Gregorio Alvarez, for human rights violations and other charges.
Civil society and human rights groups sought to overturn the law via popular referendum twice, first in 1989 and again in 2009, both times unsuccessfully. Uruguay’s Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in October 2009, just days before the referendum vote, but such rulings only apply on a case-by-case basis. Last month, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the 1986 Expiry Law violates the American Convention on Human Rights and ordered the Uruguayan state to nullify the law, which effectively obstructs victims’ right to justice. This ruling was the result of a case brought by Argentine poet Juan Gelmán, whose son and daughter-in-law were disappeared in 1976, and his granddaughter Macarena Gelmán, who was born in captivity and illegally adopted by a Uruguayan family. The Inter-American Court’s main rationale was that the right to justice is protected under international law and cannot be denied under any circumstance. It is important to note that the Inter-American Court’s rulings are legally binding, thus Uruguay must find a way to remove the Expiry Law which is an obstacle for criminal prosecutions for human rights violations.
If the Expiry Law were nullified, cases of grave human rights violations, including forced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, unjust imprisonment, sexual violence, and torture, could come before the Uruguayan courts. According to the human rights organization Peace and Justice Service (Servicio Paz y Justicia, SERPAJ), virtually all those imprisoned—approximately 7,000 during the 12-year dictatorship—were tortured while in official custody.
Eliminating this law is a critical step in the path to achieve truth and justice in Uruguay. Unlike many of its neighbors, Uruguay did not have an official truth commission to investigate the crimes committed during the military dictatorship, and the Expiry Law impeded trials from moving forward until recently. WOLA agrees with the Inter-American Court’s ruling on Uruguay: you can’t take away someone’s human rights, even by referendum.