By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan
It was a bad week for dictators, and a good one for international justice. Two brutal, U.S.-backed dictators who ruled decades ago were convicted for crimes they committed while in power. Hissene Habre took control of the northern African nation of Chad in 1982, and unleashed a reign of terror against his own people, killing at least 40,000 of them, until he was deposed in 1990. Reynaldo Bignone was a general in the Argentinian military, and was the last dictator of the military junta that ruled that country from 1976 to 1983, the period known as "The Dirty War," when an estimated 30,000 dissidents were "disappeared," i.e., killed. Both men will most likely spend the rest of their lives in prison. These verdicts won't bring back the tens of thousands they tortured and killed, but, hopefully, they will hasten the end of the modern era of impunity for human-rights abusers and their allies.
Bignone's guilty verdict for his role in the transnational "Operation Condor" conspiracy was not his first. He was one of the Argentine generals who overthrew that country's government in 1976. Bignone took a lead role in setting up and running several of the hundreds of secret detention centers where people suspected of communist or left-wing sympathies were taken and, in most cases, tortured, then killed. Argentina in those years was led by a succession of military dictators, with Bignone being the last in the line, ruling from 1982 to 1983. Bignone oversaw the destruction of documents and other evidence that might have implicated him and his fellow junta members in human-rights abuses and crimes against humanity, and also granted blanket immunity to himself and others, protecting them from future prosecution. Eventually, the amnesty was overturned, and Bignone was convicted in 2010 for the rampant kidnapping, torture and murder he oversaw.
Bignone's most recent guilty verdict was for his role in Operation Condor, in which six U.S.-backed South American dictatorships—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay—conspired to track down and kidnap or kill dissidents anywhere in the world. Bignone, 88, now has an additional 20 years added to the life sentence he is currently serving. Operation Condor was coordinated out of Chile, then under dictator Augusto Pinochet, and with the knowledge of the U.S. government, and in particular, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Chad is a mostly desert country in northern Africa that was under French colonial rule from 1900 to 1960. Sectarian warfare followed. U.S. President Ronald Reagan supported a coup in Chad, led by Hissene Habre, despite knowing his record of brutality. Habre had a mass grave behind his residence. He ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, and he terrorized his critics, both real and imagined. More than 40,000 people were killed, many tortured in the notorious "Piscine," or "the Pool," a prison and torture center located in a converted swimming pool.
In 2001, 11 years after Habre fled to Senegal (taking most of Chad's national treasury with him), an intrepid attorney with Human Rights Watch, Reed Brody, entered the abandoned headquarters of Habre's notorious secret police force, the DDS. What he found there was astounding: thousands upon thousands of documents, dust-covered and forgotten, that detailed arrests, torture and killing of more than 13,000 of Habre's victims. This documentary evidence, along with unrelenting organizing among the victims themselves, by people like prison survivor Souleymane Guengueng, led to the first trial in an African nation of a former head of state from another African nation. In the past, such trials have taken place in international tribunals, outside of the continent. Senegal formed a special court specifically to try his case.
"It hurts me that many of my colleagues died along the way. They could not be here to see the result, which is why I was moved and brought to tears," Souleymane Guengueng said after the verdict was read. "Hissene Habre was sentenced to life imprisonment. He will finish off his life in prison, and that's all we wanted. I hope this serves as a lesson to all the other dictators out there."
Bignone and the Argentine junta, and Hissene Habre, could not have committed their atrocities were it not for the support of the U.S. government. Secretary of State John Kerry called Habre's verdict "an opportunity for the United States to reflect on, and learn from, our own connection with past events in Chad." The U.S. should definitely reflect on, and learn from, these guilty verdicts. But we also should investigate, charge and put on trial U.S. government officials who aided and abetted these dictators. We need a uniform standard of justice, applied equally, across the globe.
We continue our conversation with Dave Zirin, author of the book "Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy," and Jules Boykoff, author of "Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics." In early August, more than 10,000 athletes across the world will convene in Rio de Janeiro's Olympic City for one of the most widely watched sporting events of the year. This comes as Brazil is battling an economic recession, a massive Zika outbreak and its worst political crisis in over two decades.
Watch Part 1 || In Wake of Coup, Should Brazil's Olympics Be Moved or Become a Site of Protest?
Extended interview with Setsuko Thurlow, who survived the Hiroshima atomic bombing, about the bombing of 1945 and her push to eliminate nuclear weapons. On August 6, 1945, Thurlow was at school in Hiroshima when the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on a civilian population. She has been an anti-nuclear activist for decades.
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Holocaust survivor and peace activist Hedy Epstein has died at the age of 91. Epstein was born in Germany and left in 1939 on a Kindertransport to England. Her parents died in Auschwitz. She later returned to Germany to work as a research analyst for the prosecution during the Nuremberg trials. She was involved in civil rights and antiwar movements throughout her life. In 2011, she was part of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and was a passenger on the U.S.-flagged ship, The Audacity of Hope. She was a frequent guest on Democracy Now! She first appeared on the program in 2009, as she and other activists were planning for the Gaza Freedom March.
Three years later, just days after her 90th birthday, Hedy was arrested in St. Louis during a protest outside Missouri Governor Jay Nixon's office over the police killing of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown. She spoke about her arrest on Democracy Now!
That was Hedy Epstein speaking on Democracy Now! in 2014. She died of cancer in her home in St. Louis on Thursday at the age of 91.
By Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan
Thursday, Jan. 28, was a cold morning in Durham, North Carolina. Wildin David Guillen Acosta went outside to head to school, but never made it. He was thrown to the ground and arrested by agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He has been in detention ever since. Wildin, now 19 years old, fled his home in Olancho, Honduras more than two years ago. He was detained when crossing the border, but, as he was a minor at the time, he was allowed to join his family in North Carolina. He started out at Riverside High School, and was set to graduate this June. He wanted to become an engineer. Instead, he has been locked up in the notorious Stewart Detention Center in rural Lumpkin, Georgia, which is run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America.
Wildin is just one of hundreds of thousands of children who have fled the violence of Central America in recent years, either alone or, often, with their mothers. They come primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Honduras is now one of the world's most violent countries, and Olancho has one of the highest murder rates there, causing many to flee. The U.S. Army and the Drug Enforcement Administration both have special-forces units permanently stationed there, joining in counternarcotics operations that have also killed Hondurans.
Wildin was arrested in part of a series of immigration raids, dubbed "Operation Border Guardian." Many believe its intent was to create fear among those still in Central America who might consider taking the perilous journey north to the U.S. "As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration," Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said at the time. "If you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values." Immediately after Wildin's arrest, family, friends, classmates and teachers at Riverside High demonstrated their values, rallying to support him and five others who were similarly arrested. The group of imprisoned youth is often referred to as the "NC6." Durham's Human Relations Commission appealed to ICE to release him, as did the Durham City Council.
"There is so much fear in our community, because, unfortunately, he is not the only child that they have detained," said one of Wildin's teachers, Ellen Holmes, in a support video. "It's creating absences and dropouts in our schools. It's creating just a huge feeling of fear inside our school and in our community." While there is scant evidence that the mass arrests and deportations have slowed the flow of Central American refugees to the U.S., they have certainly scared students and families currently here, forcing them to keep their kids out of school lest they be swept up like Wildin.
Wildin's request for asylum was denied, and on March 19, an immigration judge denied his appeal to reopen his case. He was set for deportation back to Honduras on March 20. However, bowing to the enormous public pressure brought by this youth-led grass-roots organizing, ICE Director Sarah Saldana issued an order that morning, delaying his deportation. Wildin's case for asylum is before the Board of Immigration Appeals, a process that could take months or even years to resolve.
"He should be released. Ninety days, by any standard, is an egregious period of time to be spending in detention," Paromita Shah told us on the "Democracy Now!" news hour. She is the associate director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and was in Washington, D.C., with several Riverside High students and teacher Ellen Holmes, visiting members of Congress and Education Secretary John B. King Jr., asking them to support Wildin.
Axel Herrera was one of the students who went to Washington. Like Wildin, he was an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, but entered at the age of 7, and thus qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. "We've talked to representatives. We've made calls. We've sent letters. We've gotten support from a few of our congressmen in North Carolina to ask for their release," he told us. "But we haven't had the response we've wanted, which is to have Wildin and have some of the other NC6 back at our schools."
Wildin Acosta remains locked up in ICE's private prison in Georgia. His request that his schoolwork be sent to him was initially denied. After public outcry, the warden relented. Many high-school students get detention for refusing to study. Wildin is stuck in permanent detention, and he has to fight for his right to study. That is determination and commitment Jeh Johnson and everyone at ICE should agree is "consistent with our values."
Amy Goodman appears on the PBS show MetroFocus and breaks down all that is wrong with the media's coverage of Election 2016.
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NPR's Scott Simon asks Amy Goodman about Bernie Sanders' chances of getting the delegates he needs to claim the Democratic nomination. Download MP3 || Read the transcript