Argentina’s top army chief linked to human rights abuses during dictatorship

Family of one soldier blames Milani for his disappearance in 1976 Fernández de Kirchner continues to support controversial general

General César Milani (far right) with other top members of the armed forces on July 3.
General César Milani (far right) with other top members of the armed forces on July 3. EFE

If there is one campaign that the government of Argentina has made a crusade over the past 10 years it has been that of bringing to justice those who committed human rights crimes during the military dictatorship, which ruled the country from 1976 to 1983.

It remains widely recalled how President Néstor Kirchner surprised the nation on March 24, 2004 when he ordered Lieutenant General Roberto Bendini to take down the portraits of the former dictators Rafael Videla and Reynaldo Bignone from the wall at the El Palomar Military Academy.

“I want it to be clear that state-backed terrorism is one of the unjustifiable and bloody offenses that any society could experience,” he said that day. Initiating a drive against the past dictatorship, Kirchner introduced new policies to make amends to the victims of the so-called Dirty War.

But now his wife and the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has found herself embroiled in a controversy that serves to contradict her late husband’s policies. On June 27, she named Army General César Santos Gerardo del Corazón de Jesús Milani – an officer accused of crimes against humanity – as head of the military chiefs of staff.

At least two allegations made against Milani have been made public. In one case, Ramón Alfredo Olivera, a former political prisoner and member of the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), delivered a statement in 1984 to the Provincial Human Rights Commission in La Rioja accusing Milani of threatening him during an interrogation in 1977. He also accused the general of breaking into his home and arresting his father, who has been missing since then.

The second charge was made by the family of solider Alberto Ledo -- supposedly Milani’s personal secretary – who went missing on June 17, 1976 in Tucumán province. His sister Graciela Ledo claims Milani ordered his disappearance.

Olivera’s complaint was dismissed but the Ledo case remains open even though the general has never been called to testify in the matter.

Olivera’s complaint was dismissed but the Ledo case remains open even though the general has never been called to testify in the matter.

Milani broke his silence about the Ledo case in an interview over the weekend with the pro-government daily Página/12. “When a soldier doesn’t show up for five nights and five days, an investigation for desertion is initiated. In Tucumán, it was reported at that moment that Ledo was a deserter. But it is now obvious that wasn’t the case,” he said, denying he had anything to do with the soldier’s disappearance.

At first, the government’s biggest allies in human rights causes – The Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) – did not oppose Milani’s nomination.

But as the Senate on Monday began studying Fernández de Kirchner’s appointments, the CELS presented a report against Milani. Headed by well-known journalist Horacio Verbitsky, who also happens to be editor of Página/12, the CELS was founded in 1979 as a champion of human rights causes and its reports to Congress have always had an impact.

In the statement, the CELS said that it has gathered information that connects Milani with “allegations that are under judicial investigation for human rights crimes.” The letter to the senators convinced lawmakers to suspend debates on Milani’s appointment for now. His nomination was scheduled to go to the Chamber of Deputies on July 31.

At the same time, investigative journalist Jorge Lanata, who presents a highly rated Sunday night television news program, Periodismo para todos (Journalism for everyone) questioned Milani’s wealth. According to Lanata, in 2010 the general bought a 1,150 square-meter home in an exclusive sector of Buenos Aires for the equivalent of about 200,000 euros, when his salary is 1,943 euros per month.

For its part, the government of Fernández de Kirchner continues to place its faith in Milani.

“This isn’t his first promotion,” said Defense Minister Agustín Rossi last Friday. “In 2001 he was promoted to colonel, then brigadier general in 2007, and in 2010 he became a divisional general, and at no time were any of these allegations brought up.”

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