An Ambassador Born of the 'Dirty Wars'

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By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Outside the office of Hector Timerman, Argentina's new ambassador to Washington, across from an oval ballroom, are photographs of his 50 predecessors.

Jorge A. Aja Espil gazes sternly from one of the chipped, pale green walls. An ambassador during Argentina's military dictatorship, Espil represented and defended the government that went after an outspoken newspaper mogul, Jacobo Timerman. Hector, 54, is his son.

As a human rights activist 20 years ago, Hector Timerman dueled openly with Espil in the American press through fiery letters and indignant rebuttals. Timerman sought to expose in writing, as had his father, the system that abducted, imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of Argentines.

When Timerman took up his post last month, his first instinct was to tear down Espil's portrait. But as he made courtesy calls to other Latin American ambassadors, he discovered a source of healing in the turmoil that had also shaped their journeys.

Some of his counterparts had also survived coups and despotism. They had suffered grave solitude as outcasts or were the descendants of men persecuted for their principles. Among them were Chilean Ambassador Mariano Fernandez, who as a diplomat in Bonn was exiled in 1973 and then worked as a journalist while fighting the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and Uruguayan Ambassador Carlos Alberto Gianelli, nephew of the late Wilson Ferreira Aldunate, a leading politician who fled his country's military coups.

"When I met these ambassadors, I remembered my father," Timerman said. "We were all political refugees. Now as envoys here, we represent the best values of our generation.

"This is a victory of democracy over hatred," he added. "I will leave the pictures just to remember every day how dangerous it is not to react against a dictatorship. It starts with police brutality and ends up with people dropping out of planes."

The story of Jacobo Timerman, the publisher of La Opinión, kidnapped from his home on April 15, 1977, and ruthlessly tortured, became a symbol of Argentina's human rights abuses and the horrors of the "dirty war" waged by the junta from 1976 to 1983. For publishing the names of thousands of citizens who had vanished into Argentina's labyrinth of cells and torture chambers, Jacobo Timerman himself became desaparecido, or disappeared .

Two weeks before his father was kidnapped, Timerman, then 22 and an apprentice at La Opinión, attended a meeting with Patt Derian, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights. In an e-mail, Derian recounted how she had asked the elder Timerman why he had stayed in Argentina despite bomb threats against him and his staff.

He explained that when he was a child, his family was forced to leave Russia. "I promised myself that I would never leave my new homeland," she said he told her.

His son also recalled him saying, "I don't want anyone in Argentina to see a Jew run away."

The young Timerman took over the newspaper. He went from one police station to another trying to learn his father's whereabouts. Asked to pay for information, he was bilked for cash with false claims that his father needed clothes and medication in jail, he said.

"Hector was very courageous," recalled Mario del Carril, a former journalist and philosophy professor. "He stuck it out despite the bomb threats to the paper" until the publication was confiscated with the rest of the family's property.

When Timerman was finally allowed to see his father in jail, he found him emaciated and frail from electric shocks and a poor diet.

The U.S. Embassy, where he had once protested U.S.-backed Latin American dictatorships, became a place he sought advice. When warned that he, too, was in danger, Timerman went to Brazil and then Israel before ending up in New York. In the United States, he spoke at synagogues and to human rights groups. He asked for help from State Department officials. He managed to line up support for his father's release from seven influential U.S. senators.

Jacobo Timerman was freed after 30 months in detention, stripped of his nationality and deported to Israel. He eventually returned to Buenos Aires, where he died in 1999.

Hector Timerman wrote articles and hosted television debates after his return to Argentina in the 1980s, once democracy was restored. He lectured on human rights and helped found Human Rights Watch.

His work as ambassador began March 8. He and his wife, Annabel, an architect and winemaker, have two grown daughters.

Sitting in the same sun-drenched office that Espil once occupied, Timerman pursues an agenda focused on easing tensions between the United States and Argentina and persevering in the fight to bring to justice those who tortured his father and others.

Last year, he filed a lawsuit against police chaplain Christian von Wernich in the torture of his father. Von Wernich, the first Roman Catholic priest prosecuted for crimes committed during Argentina's dictatorship, was found guilty of involvement in seven murders and in numerous torture cases and kidnappings.

Timerman is now suing seven civilians for human rights violations.

"They will stand trial and be indicted. I will never forgive or forget," he said. "I have been doing this since 1977. Why should I stop now?"

But the greatest human rights violation in Latin America these days, Timerman said, is poverty. "If you just look at the picture, you see poverty," he said. "We won the battle. Now, we have to make good on our history, to show that democracy is worthwhile."


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