Freedom from Torture's Perico Rodriguéz is witness in Argentina torture trial
This month, Freedom from Torture caseworker counsellor Perico Rodriguéz has been giving evidence in Argentina in the trial of several members of the Military Junta which ruled the country in the 1970s when thousands of people were killed, tortured and "disappeared". Perico, then a town clerk in Cinco Saltos, Patagonia, was himself imprisoned and tortured for three years following the 1976 military coup led by General Jorge Videla.
Decades after his release, Perico's continuing search for justice is an inspiration to other activists and survivors fighting torture around the world. During the trial, Perico has received a great deal of support from members of the public and the families of other victims, significant media interest and has been awarded the Freedom of the City of Neuquén.
Andy Keefe, Freedom from Torture's Director of Clinical Services said: "This is an important moment to mark and pay tribute to Perico's resilience, courage and humanity: to have gone through what he did and still been able to devote his life to helping so many other survivors of torture, and then to be able to go back to Argentina and give evidence against those accused of responsibility for the repression is an immense achievement and an example to us all."
Speaking in London before he travelled to give evidence to the Tribunal Oral Federal de Neuquén, Perico Rodriguéz said:
"It is a daunting experience to be acting as a witness in such a trial. My biggest fear is for my memory - that I will be able to remember everything clearly after all this time. It is crucial that this trial goes ahead, especially for the people living there. Some people, including families of the accused, have denounced the witnesses as wanting 'revenge'; but this is a fair trial – the defendants - with their lawyers - will have the opportunity to defend themselves and they have a guarantee that they won't be tortured. This is something I was never afforded.
"I think often of the prisoners with whom I was held. I remember two women being brought into a place where we were being detained, known as 'the little school' – we were all blindfolded and chained to bunkbeds so we couldn't see each or touch each other. One of the women was incredibly upset, crying. I told her that she must have faith and stay strong, I gave a speech – of course I was beaten when the guards returned and heard me talking, but maintaining solidarity with each other – keeping each other going – was so important."
Reflecting on what the experience must have been like for his family, Perico said:
When I was released my wife told me 'we didn't dare to think'. In some way I think it felt almost safer in prison as you knew where you were; in Argentina at that time the streets were pervaded with a huge fear. We, the prisoners inside, were terrified for the courageous people outside going to work every day.
"We've come a long way in the fight against torture since I left my country. The Conventions Against Torture and Enforced Disappearances have been adopted and we now have important domestic legislation in Argentina. Of course, this doesn't mean that torture has stopped. But at least we now have the tools to pursue justice and protect human rights."
In correspondence from Argentina during the trial, Perico said:
I can only describe the court sessions in Neuquén as "intense". The three judges of the tribunal were extremely respectful to us. The court clerk reads and explains to each witness an article from the penal code regarding giving false testimony to the court and the sentences for those who lie. This is a customary practice but still worrying all of us. One of the witnesses told me after she gave her testimony that she was terrified to make any mistake or not remembering exactly some events that could be regarded by the court as a "false testimony". I thought about the torture survivors who come to Freedom from Torture for help in the UK - when they arrive in the country seeking protection they have to give their account of their ordeal to seemingly unsympathetic immigration officers – and often repeat this over and over again at different stages of the asylum system. It can feel as if anything they say will be taken against them.
"There is an enormous sense of solidarity around us. I wonder (and wish) whether it will continue after the trial has finished. Opposite the tribunal building volunteers man a tent where passers-by come and hear about the progress of the trial and to drink maté, (our national tea). By phone they are answering the thousands of queries (and some hate calls). The press is here every day while the court is hearing the testimony of the prisoners - the sad history of my friends and me.
"The witness victims are supported by many volunteer doctors and social workers from local human rights organisations. Volunteer social workers sit behind the witnesses when they are giving evidence, ready to offer any kind of help or support – I think this is a very useful role. There is a great sense of commitment to this cause. In the middle of all this mixture of pain and hope, we have the feeling that we are participating in a history with a good end (we hope). We are aware that so many of our friends were killed. We have no burial place to pay them an homage, they were disappeared and we do not know where their bodies are resting. They are in our minds and in our thoughts, they are present with us.
"When I started giving my testimony, I was sitting in the middle of a row of lawyers. My chair was facing the three judges. Behind me, the public were sitting. They quietly applauded when I was entering the room. Right from the beginning I felt I was winning. Somehow I was composed, calm and clear while I was asked several questions by the prosecutor federal and lawyers from the defence and our side. The contradictions in my testimony, spotted by the defendant lawyers were well explained and by me. (I did not know how, but I did). All the time I look directly into the lawyer's eyes. I looked at the defendant's faces maintaining eye contact. The court chairman thanked me after I finished talking and when I stood up, the public applauded me, this time very loudly. The journalists took hundreds of pictures.
"My son was very impressed. I never told my children about these details. Perhaps I was wrong, I just wanted to spare them from all these things. Many members of the public were crying and they were thanking me because they told me that my final speech was full of courage and hope. It was a very intense day."
The Tribunal Oral Federal de Neuquén continues.