Argentina case threatens to criminalize criticism of Israel

The detention of pro-Palestinian activists is protested in Buenos Aires, 26 May 2009. (Convergencia de Izquierda/argentina.indymedia.org)


In what Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel has termed “a witch hunt and an attack on democratic freedoms,” nine pro-Palestinian protesters in Argentina have been detained following a demonstration at an event celebrating Israel’s 61st anniversary. The activists have been vilified as violent anti-Semites by politicians and the television and print media, and now face up to 12 years in prison for “ideological arrogance,” under revived Juan Peron-era anti-terrorism legislation of dubious constitutionality.

The furor erupted on 17 May 2009 when violence broke out between protesters and supporters of Israel at a city center event organized by the City of Buenos Aires to mark Israel’s 61st anniversary, resulting in the arrest and detention of the protesters. The Israeli ambassador and the country’s major Jewish organizations immediately denounced the incident as an “anti-Semitic attack,” an interpretation repeated with little reflection, amid much sensationalism, by almost all of the media in Argentina.

At least four ministers, and politicians of all stripes, rushed out to condemn the protesters. The lower house of parliament unanimously passed a resolution expressing their worry at these “serious attacks against the Argentinean Jewish community.” With strong condemnations from the US ambassador and much talk of a “new outbreak of anti-Semitism,” the five protesters originally arrested were refused bail. Four days later authorities raided the headquarters of the Teresa Rodriguez Movement (MTR), one of the groups involved in the protests, and seven others were taken into custody (three of these have since been released).

What actually happened at the 17 May event, however, remains unclear. According to the witnesses who say they were attacked, the protesters arrived to the scene wielding sticks and chains, striking out indiscriminately at women, children and old people. According to their lawyer, the defendants claim that the violence broke out as soon as they arrived, but say that they only carried flyers, placards and a banner, and that it was in fact they who were set upon by a group of men who broke from the crowd.

All accounts agree that there were approximately 20 protesters. Both sides also say that the violence broke out as soon as the protesters came on the scene, some on the side of the prosecution relating that they were seen emerging from the subway one hundred meters away. Yet with approximately 500 persons attending the heavily policed pro-Israel event, supporters of the defense argue that it is inconceivable that a group of only 20 activists emerged charging from the subway with sticks and chains, into a well-protected crowd of hundreds.

The “official” narrative contains further anomalies. Initial accounts given by witnesses and broadcasted at length by the media emphasized that women, children and old people were struck at indiscriminately. Yet the only three injured (apart from the defendants, all beaten) were adult males. These three injured are also the only witnesses for the prosecution to claim that it was the protesters who initiated the fighting. Out of a crowd of 500, the defense argues, it seems strange that the prosecution could find nobody but those involved in the fighting, who can testify as to how it began. Furthermore, despite the headline-making claims that the protesters attacked with sticks and chains, the only weapon attributed to them in the charge sheet is a nunchuk, used in martial arts, found at the scene but which the protesters deny belonged to them.

The commander of the police detail at the event told the media that his officers did not intervene immediately because “it was too quick. It must have lasted 20 seconds.” Available evidence points to the conclusion that what broke out was nothing more sinister than a scuffle between two partisan groups. At worst, this may have been provoked by overheated protesters. But it does not seem to have been the pre-meditated, racially-motivated violent attack claimed by the Israeli ambassador and Jewish organizations, as has been repeated by the media, politicians and the courts. Indeed, Israeli ambassador Daniel Gazit was widely quoted as stating, “This is terrorism … they came to hit, to wound and maybe to kill.”

Supporters of Palestinian rights in Argentina fear that this case could result in a precedent that would criminalize solidarity with Palestine and criticism of Israeli state policy. David Mario Comedi, of the Argentinian Anti-Zionist Jewish Organization, explained to the author that the Israeli embassy and the DAIA (the national umbrella group for Jewish organizations) have been operating a “deliberate campaign for many years now, identifying as anti-Semitic protests which are clearly against the State of Israel and its behavior, and not against Jews.”

Meanwhile, the fate of the nine detained men and women is uncertain. They belong to two groups, the FAR (Revolutionary Action Front), a leftist political movement, and the MTR, a community organization of whom only some members are involved in activism. The MTR runs various community centers and it was one of these that was raided following the incident. While the police reported that they found firearms, the defendants insist that none of them had any access to the room in which the weapons were allegedly discovered. Their lawyer, Martin Alderete, stated that the raid was “highly irregular,” lacking the required presence of civilian witnesses.

The MTR members who were at the community center during the raid were detained, like the original five, for “ideological arrogance” displayed at the 17 May protest, even though they assert that they did not even attend the rally. However, the application of Article 213 bis, the statutory basis for “ideological arrogance,” means that at the judge’s discretion one can be detained for the sole fact of membership of an organization deemed “to impose their ideas by means of force.” On the dubious grounds set out above, FAR and MTR have been effectively blacklisted overnight.

The implications of this are far-reaching. The defendant’s lawyer, Martin Alderete told the author that that the police are making no effort to investigate what actually happened on 17 May. He explained that all focus is on the groups, going through their files, their computers, in an effort to prove that they have been involved in a systematic campaign of violent anti-Semitism (they have also been charged under the anti-discrimination law), with no attempt to prove that the initial act was in fact a crime. In practice, what this focus amounts to, warned Alderete, is “the criminalization of ideas rather than acts, and it is extremely risky for the future.”

Given its dubious constitutionality, there have already been various attempts by lawmakers to repeal Article 213 bis. The latest proposed bill, presented to the lower house of parliament in 2008, referred to the article’s use during the military dictatorship, noting that it “gained validity [during] the darkest years of our history,” and warned that “The letter of the article in question does away with the most basic freedoms that a democratic state is entrusted with preserving. It is a code which is clearly contrary to freedom of expression and freedom of thought. … It opens the door to the legal persecution of ideas.”

The gravity of its latest application, while almost totally ignored by the Argentinean media, has not gone wholly unnoticed, and some prominent figures have come out in defense of the protesters. Perez Esquivel and the historian Osvaldo Bayer, among other activists and academics from Argentina and beyond, have decried this precedent-setting case. There have also been solidarity protests outside the court. Yet, with most of the society already having been told that the nine men and women are violent anti-Semites, it is difficult to see where further support will come from. At the beginning of July, a three-judge federal appeals court will review the indictment — with nine families and perhaps the future of freedom of expression in Argentina on the line.

Hugh Harkin, currently based in Argentina, is a member of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.