Former Urguayan president Bordaberry condemned for 1973 coup

For the first time in Latin America, a judge has sent a former head of state to prison for the crime of an "Attack against the Constitution." In an unprecedented ruling last month in Montevideo, former Uruguayan President Juan María Bordaberry was sentenced to serve 30 years for undermining Uruguay's constitution through an auto-coup in June 1973, and for his responsibility in nine disappearances and two political assassinations committed by the security forces while he was president between 1972 and 1976.

Declassified U.S. documents provided as evidence in the case by the National Security Archive show that Bordaberry justified his seizure of extra-constitutional powers on June 27, 1973 by telling the U.S. Ambassador that "Uruguay's democratic traditions and institutions…were themselves the real threat to democracy." Another U.S. document used in the trial shows that within days after the coup, the police were ordered to launch, in coordination with the military, "intelligence gathering and operations of a 'special' nature"—references to death squad actions that ensued.

"These declassified U.S. documents," said Carlos Osorio, who heads the National Security Archive's Southern Cone project, "helped the Court open the curtain of secrecy on human rights crimes committed during Bordaberry's reign of power."

The ruling by Judge Mariana Motta on February 9, 2010, was based on a case presented by two lawyers, Walter de León and Hebe Martínez Burlé. "No one thought we had a chance to convict Bordaberry," Ms. Martínez Burlé said. "Even among human rights advocates, some said we were crazy."

Oscar Destouet, head of the Human Rights Directorate in the Ministry of Education which supported the prosecution, noted that "[t]his is the first time that a head of state is brought to justice for a coup d'état." Certainly, the case is unprecedented in the Uruguayan judicial system. "The sentence points to a new dawn in Uruguayan jurisprudence," says Jorge Pan, head of the Institute for Legal Studies of Uruguay [IELSUR]....

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