Fray Juan Antonio Puigjané is a 74-year-old Capuchin friar. He is a human rights activist, an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, a proponent of non-violent action and a strong believer in liberation theology. He is also in jail. He has spent the last seven years in an over-crowded prison in Argentina. If justice is not served, he is likely to spend the rest of his life there. He needs your help.
Fray Antonio began working with the poor in the 1960s, when he realized that the Catholic Church had a responsibility to attend to more than the mere spiritual needs of the slum-dwellers. He worked with the poor helping them help themselves, by organizing cooperatives to build clinics near churches that offered inexpensive medical care and other services to the poor. He was also a vocal opponent of the atrocities committed by the former military regime. He managed to so antagonize the military authorities at the time that his own father was "disappeared" and likely killed.
During the seventies, under yet another military regime, he continued his work among the poor and became a vocal advocate for the "disappeared." He became one of a handful of priests that would give masses for the "disappeared," and became the first man to march with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo He was their chaplain for many years. He was oblivious to death threats, and managed to elude attempts on his life, and was never silent.
After democracy returned to Argentina, he continued his labors among the poor, trying to achieve social change through non-violent means. He helped found an organization called Movimiento Todos por la Patria (MTP, All for the Fatherland Movement), that aspired to create significant social changes, while clamoring for justice for the victims of the military government.
By the end of 1988, many members of the MTP became convinced that a military coup was imminent in Argentina. There had been several military rebellions in the past year, and the government of President Alfonsin seemed unable to hold on to power for much longer. In an effort to placate the military, the Alfonsin government passed two laws exonerating most of the military for the crimes they committed during the "dirty war" from 1976 to 1983. The fragility of Alfonsín's government seemed obvious to many.
Several members of the MTP became convinced that the coup was being planned at the La Tablada military base. They decided it was their duty to stop this from happening, and developed a foolhardy plan: they would pretend to be taking over the base pretending they were military rebells, hoping to stir a mass popular uproar against the military and thus be able to prevent a coup. About 40 members of the MTP did in fact try to take over the military base. They were quickly surrounded by more than 3,000 soldiers, police, and security forces utilizing tanks, armored cars, mortars and napalm-like projectiles. Members of the MTP who survived the initial attack by the military and security forces attempted to surrender by waving a white flag clearly seen from outside the base. However, the military continued its bombardment of the base, killing not only members of the MTP, but soldiers in the base as well. The attack resulted in the deaths of nine soldiers, two police officers, and 28 MTP members. There was evidence that two MTP members listed by the military as dead may have been summarily executed after having surrendered. Three other MTP members "disappeared" after having been captured alive. MTP members detained after the military recaptured the base were reportedly tortured while in military custody and were subjected to additional torture while in incommunicado detention under the supervision of the Federal Police and prison service personnel. All were reportedly held by the police in conditions which amounted to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. To date, no member of the security forces has been brought to justice for these human rights violations. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights determined that 9 of the prisoners of La Tablada were summarily executed, and that the 20 that remain alived were tortured, as well as had their rights to justice violated.
According to the surviving leadership of the MTP, they were very careful to keep all knowledge of the planned attack from Fray Antonio as they knew he would be utterly opposed to such a plan.
Fray Antonio learned about the attack while listening to the radio. According to the nuns that where with him when he found out about it, he was in a deep state of shock and disbelief. On the advice of a lawyer friend, Fray Antonio presented himself to the prosecutor's office in Buenos Aires, as he was a member of the MTP leadership. He was arrested, subjected to interrogations, insulted and subjected to death threats by the officers in charge.
Fray Antonio was tried, along with 19 other MTP members, for crimes against the "defense of democracy law." Only 14 of the 20 people had actually participated in the attack. Although Fray Antonio had not participated in the planning of the attack nor the attack itself, he was put on trial in a highly-charged political atmosphere. In a sense, his beliefs in liberation theology and social change were tried to justify the prosecution's assertion that he should be imprisoned. At no point during the trial was any evidence presented that showed that Fray Antonio had any knowledge about the attack, much less that he participated in planning or executing it. This was not taken into account by the judges.
However, the Tribunal that judged him decided that his mere membership as a leader of the MTP, coupled with his socio-political and religious beliefs, were enough to "prove" his guilt as an accessory to the murder of 11 people, accessory to the attempted murder of 12 people, illicit association, and rebellion. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with no possibility of appeal.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States decided in favor of Fray Antonio and the other MTP members in a report approved November 18, 1997.
The IACHR concluded that the Argentine government violated Fray Antonio's:
Furthermore, the IACHR recommended that the Argentine government "repair the harm suffered" by Fray Antonio as a result of the government's violations of Fray Antonio's rights. After more that eight years of unjust imprisonment, the only way to "repair the harm suffered" would be to immediately and unconditionally release Fray Antonio.
In June 1998, Fray Antonio was set out on home detention. However, his freedom of movement and action continue to be curtailed.
After a lengthy investigation, Amnesty International concluded that the Court's verdict violated the principle of innocence established in Article 8.2 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which has been incorporated into the Argentine Constitution. This was vidicated by the decision of the IACHR. Amnesty International believes that the Court's verdict violated the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty and Fray Antonio is a prisoner of conscience, that is to say, someone who has been imprisoned merely because of his beliefs and who has never used or advocated violence. Amnesty International asks for the unconditional and immediate release of Fray Antonio.
Fray Antonio suffers from arthritis, and is often in pain (in Nov. 1995, the pain in his legs was so great that he could barely walk). He rarely is allowed to receive medical care, and is often denied medicine and pain relievers. After 8 years in Caseros, a prison so horrible that has inspired several riots by prisoners demanding some measure of human treatment, Fray Antonio was finally transferred to a farm prison outside Buenos Aires. Though the living conditions there are much better, he is still a prisoner.
So far, the Argentinian government has refused to comply with their obligations under international human rights law, and continue to violate the human rights of Fray Antonio.
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Fray Antonio's Homepage - Human Rights in Argentina - Derechos HR.
Maintained by Mike Katz-Lacabe. Last updated January 18, 1998.