Elderly Jew wins a long legal battle against Argentina

LOS ANGELES — An elderly Argentine Jew who lives in the United States has expressed delight at living long enough to see justice done in his lengthy legal battle against the Argentine government.

In a landmark international human rights case, Jose Siderman won compensation from Argentina for torture and loss of property, after 20 years of harassment and legal struggle.

Siderman blamed endemic Argentine anti-Semitism for many of his travails.

"Ever since I was born in Argentina, because I'm Jewish, I have had many difficulties," Siderman said.

"If you're Jewish in Argentina, you have a 50 to 60 percent less chance of succeeding than any other Argentine. Being a Jew in Argentina has made it very difficult for me."

Facing the unprecedented trial in an American court of a foreign government for crimes committed on its own soil, Argentina dispatched two emissaries, who agreed to a sealed out-of-court settlement with Siderman, who is now 85 and living in Los Angeles.

Although the accord stipulated secrecy on its precise terms by all the parties involved, the Los Angeles Times quoted published accounts from Buenos Aires that put Siderman's compensation at $6 million.

The New York Times cited a source who said the Argentine government "had agreed to pay a sizable monetary settlement to Jose Siderman, his wife and their three children and to acknowledge that they had been victimized by Argentina's former military regime."

It was clear at the news conference that Siderman and his attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California considered the agreement a moral and financial victory.

Siderman's struggle started March 24, 1976, when a military junta began its so-called "dirty war" against alleged subversives.

That same night, soldiers knocked on the door of Siderman's home in the northwestern province of Tucuman, screaming, "Jew son of a whore, open the door."

Taken to a police command post, Siderman, then 65, was tortured with electric shocks and lit cigarettes, three of his ribs were broken and one of his testicles was crushed.

Released after seven days, Siderman and his family fled Argentina three months later and settled in the United States, where one of his daughters lived.

The junta in Buenos Aires took over Siderman's property, estimated at $26.4 million in court records, and continued to harass the expatriate.

Claiming that Siderman had left Argentina illegally and falsified records, the government issued an international warrant for his arrest.

On the strength of the Interpol warrant, Siderman was arrested while on a visit to Italy and held for seven months.

The next year, Siderman, joined by the ACLU, filed suit against Argentina in U.S. District Court, marking the beginning of a 14-year legal journey.

Initially, the court awarded Siderman a $2.7 million default judgment against Argentina.

However, the Argentine government successfully appealed the verdict on the grounds that it could not be sued in a U.S. court for its treatment of Siderman, a position backed by the U.S. State Department.

Siderman found himself back at square one.

The case lay dormant for some years, during which Siderman returned to Argentina and unsuccessfully pleaded for compensation from the new civilian government, which had dismissed all the junta's charges against him.

However, in 1992, the case got a new life when a U.S. appeals court ruled that Argentina had unintentionally laid itself open to American jurisdiction. The reason was that in 1981, the junta, in its relentless pursuit of Siderman, had sought his arrest through papers filed with the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

During the next three years, Argentina unsuccessfully fought the appeals court's decision up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Finally, this month, facing becoming the first foreign government to be tried in the United States for human rights abuses committed within its own borders, Argentina responded to Siderman's earlier pleas for a negotiated settlement.

"The main message of this case to foreign governments is that if someone flees your country, you better not come after him in the United States," said ACLU attorney Paul Hoffman, who worked on Siderman's case.

"You better not hurt or harass him in this country, because then your government will be open to justice in the courts of the United States," Hoffman added.

"That's an extremely important principle for every family seeking refuge in this country from torture or oppression."

Siderman said in an interview that anti-Semitism continues in Argentina despite the change to a democratic government.

"Anti-Semitism is the basic sentiment of all Argentines, except for a select few in public life," he said.

His son, Carlos Siderman, added that "without doubt, nothing has changed in Tucuman province," where the same general who conducted a particularly brutal "dirty war" against dissidents and Jews has now been elected governor.

However, an Argentine diplomat here took issue with Siderman's claim of pervasive anti-Semitism in today's Argentina.

"I don't deny that there were some problems of this kind in the past, as there were all over the world, but the government has now fought this widely, which has been recognized by the government of Israel," said Luis Maria Riccheri, Argentina's consul general in Los Angeles.

"Three of the highest government officials now are Jews: the president's chief aide, the minister of the interior and the minister of justice."

The recently appointed justice minister, Elias Jassan, owes his job to the resignation of his predecessor, Rodolfo Barra, who stepped down after Argentine media reports revealed his membership as a youth in a notorious anti-Semitic organization.

Barra headed the justice department at a time when the government has come under fire from local Jews for failing to make progress in a probe over the fatal bombing of the Argentine Jewish community headquarters in Buenos Aires two years ago.