WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
20 Feb 2013 | Commentary | News

Judge’s Removal Causes Concerns over Human Rights Investigations in Uruguay

By Jo-Marie Burt, WOLA Senior Fellow and Director of Latin American Studies, George Mason University

“The world won’t come to an end because one judge was transferred.” That was what Uruguayan Senator Lucia Topolansky had to say in the wake of a public protest challenging a Supreme Court decision to remove a judge investigating human rights crimes and transfer her to civil court.

The Senator —and wife of President José Mujica— may be right, but it depends on what your world looks like. Imagine if one night, in the thick of a military dictatorship, your son or daughter was abducted and never seen or heard from again. It’s very likely that your world—ten, twenty, perhaps even thirty years later—is still defined by that moment of loss, by the inability to bury your child’s body, by not even knowing for certain that your child is dead. In this case, the removal of a judge who was brave enough to investigate such crimes, and did so with rigor and compassion, might bring your world to an end.

Her name is Mariana Mota. She is one of the very few judges in Uruguay investigating such cases, which date from a military dictatorship in power between 1973 and 1985. Uruguay’s dictatorship is considered the most Orwellian of the Latin American military regimes; thousands were imprisoned, almost all were brutally tortured or forced into exile, and some were executed or disappeared. At the time, Uruguay had the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, including the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes.

Last week, out of the blue, Judge Mota received a phone call from her superiors in the Supreme Court saying she was being transferred to civil court. The 50 or so human rights cases in her docket? No one seemed to worry too much about them.

It was just a year or so ago that Uruguay began to fully come to terms with its past.

Shortly after the transition to democracy in 1985, several victims of human rights violations sought to bring their tormenters to account. But with a still powerful military looking over its shoulder, Parliament passed an amnesty law in 1986 that prevented investigations from moving forward. Impunity was consecrated, and a thick silence took hold.

It was a full 20 years before cracks in the wall of impunity began to appear—mostly because of family members’ persistent search for the truth about their loved ones, mixed in with some creative lawyering. If they could not overturn the amnesty law, perhaps they could find ways around it, and that they did. Human rights lawyers arguing before the courts that amnesty did not apply to civilians, nor to crimes that occurred outside of Uruguayan territory (many crimes occurred under the rubric of Plan Condor, in which Southern Cone dictatorships worked together to repress perceived enemies). As a result, some prosecutions moved forward—including the 2010 conviction of former dictator Juan María Bordaberry, a conviction handed down by none other than Mariana Mota. Most crimes, however, could not be investigated because of the 1986 amnesty law.

That all changed in 2011. Prompted by an international ruling declaring that Uruguay had an obligation to investigate human rights crimes and prosecute and punish those responsible, a new law was passed in November 2011 that revoked the effects of the amnesty law, declared that dictatorship-era human rights crimes were crimes against humanity, and established that no statutes of limitation could be applied—meaning that they could be prosecuted at any time, as occurs with Nazi-era crimes.

The decision to transfer Judge Mota was made arbitrarily and without explanation. Transfers of this kind occur when requested by the judge, or as a result of some sanction due to inappropriate behavior. Neither pertains here.

No, the world won’t end because a judge was transferred. But for those who still don’t know the whereabouts of their loved ones, for those who suffered torture in the dungeons of the dictatorship, for those who long to see justice done for the crimes committed against their relatives by agents of the State, it may well spell the end of their best, last hope to see truth and justice done.   

Photo: Former Uruguayan dictator Juan María Bordaberry, who Judge Mota convicted in 2010. 

See also:
"Uruguay Must Overcome Impunity: CEJIL and WOLA express deep concern over transferring of Judge Mota to civilian court" (WOLA and CEJIL, February 15, 2013)

"Recent Sentence by Uruguayan Supreme Court Obstructs Search for Truth and Justice: Unconstitutionality Verdict is a New Setback in the Struggle against Impunity" (Jo-Marie Burt with Francesca Lessa, St. Anne's College, Oxford)