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What Uruguay Should Be Teaching Egypt

Posted: 01/07/11 23:11

The small Southern Cone nation of Uruguay made global headlines when their national team placed 4th in last year's Football World Cup. However there is an ongoing political struggle which should be attracting similar numbers of worldwide headlines, but is not. Uruguayan president Jose Mujica a former guerrilla fighter (or terrorist in today's parlance) was imprisoned for 14 years in Punta Carretas Prison (now converted into an upscale shopping mall) in 1972 for fighting against the heavily corrupted democratic government which preceded the military dictatorship that ruled Uruguay between 1973-1985.

He was a member of the Tupamaros movement, (named after Inca revolutionary Túpac Amaru II) an armed faction inspired by Cuban revolutionary groups of the time. They led the resistance against the dictatorship. The movement kidnapped and executed FBI agent Dan Mitrione who came to Uruguay on USAID's (the US Agency for International Development) behalf to offer his expertise on counterinsurgency techniques to the dictatorship. This amounted to demonstrations of torture techniques (or advanced interrogation techniques some would call them). Mitrione would hold instructional sessions for the Uruguayan police force; he has been accused of personally executing four homeless people with electro shock in the soundproofed cellar of his Montevideo home.

This is an example of the brutality that pervaded Uruguay at the time, brutality the Tupamaros fought against, and brutality one might expect to be punished now the dictatorship has ended. However much like the immunity Operation Paperclip granted Nazi scientists after World War II, those who tortured, murdered and terrorized the Uruguayan people on behalf of the dictatorship need not fear prosecution any time soon. This is because of a law passed the year after the dictatorship ended called the 'Ley de Caducidad' or more clunkily in English 'Law of Expiry on Punitive Claims by the State'. This law exempts military and police officers from prosecution for any crime committed before March 1st 1985, i.e. those crimes committed before and during the dictatorship.

During Pepe Mujica's inauguration at the Plaza de la Independencia in Montevideo on March 1st 2010, much was made of his shaking hands with military leaders who were present there. The former guerilla fighter agreeing to let the past lie, and looking to unite with those his movement once opposed to forge a new Uruguay. However this is a misreading. The Uruguayan military of today are far removed from the one 25 years ago, and Mujica and his party Frente Amplio (The Broad Front) had been pushing long prior to his election as President to repeal the law protecting those who could expect to stand trial for their actions during the dictatorship.

Since 2005 a coalition containing student groups, Frente Amplio activists and relatives of victims had been pushing for a referendum. After collecting the required number of signatures to do this; 25% of the Uruguayan population, the decision whether to repeal the law was put to the people for a second time (an attempt to repeal the law had been made in 1989 but had lost 57%-43%). On the 25th October 2009, the same day as the national elections in which Mujica would be victorious, there was a separate ballot asking Uruguayans whether they wanted to repeal the law, with two boxes stating simply yes or no.

The motion was not passed; it earned 47.98% of the vote, when more than 50% was needed. Uruguay has a mandatory voting system, so low turn out cannot be the reason. There is an odd argumentation I encountered where people stated that the fixation with the dictatorship amounts to 'living in the past'; that Uruguay needs to 'move on'. Logically the clearest way to do this would be to punish those guilty of crimes; thus making a clean break with the lawlessness that existed before.

Also how can the families of the 180 people known to have been killed, the families of the hundreds of desparecidos (the disappeared ones) whose whereabouts to this day is unknown, and the families of the 15,000 political prisoners who underwent brutal and criminal treatment in detention facilities be expected to move on, when justice has not been done?

Egypt and other nations who have undergone immense changes during The Arab Spring now have the opportunity to reinvent their respective countries; of course all those involved in the previous repressive regimes will not be punished right away, power puts down strong roots. However the lesson Uruguay should be teaching Egypt is that no matter how long it takes, justice will eventually be done, that those who have unjustly repressed and terrorised people will be brought to trial. Unfortunately at the moment this is not the case.

Pepe Mujica's and Frente Amplio's insistence on trying to push for another referendum on this matter, despite the recent loss, is beginning to harm them politically. Opponents are citing it as evidence that they do not 'respect democracy'.

Perhaps here in the UK we could set an example for Egypt instead by breaking with our own criminal past and putting former Prime Minister Lord Blair on trial for war crimes. Perhaps he and his friend who he described as "immensely courageous and a force for good", former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could be tried in the same courthouse. Their camaraderie could be rekindled with Blair thanking Mubarak for the free 2001 luxury Red Sea holiday, and Mubarak thanking Blair for the unflinching political support.

In Paris recently at the Place de l'Uruguay beneath a statue of Uruguay's national hero General Artigas there was a cardboard plaque with three black and white pictures and the statement " no olvidarse de los desaparecidos" -'never forget the disappeared ones,' and we should not. And equally we should never forget that those who have done the disappearing are still at large.