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A Long Battle for Vindication Pays Off

Courts: After 20 years, victim of Argentina 'dirty war' gets settlement pact.

September 16, 1996|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Through torture and humiliation, exile and intimidation, through 20 years of nightmares spanning three continents, Jose Siderman never lost faith in the possibility of vindication. Even when Argentina tried to extend its "dirty war" across oceans and snatch this aging refugee back to its clutches, Siderman held out faith that he and his shattered family would somehow prevail.

Now Siderman, 85 and frail but with energy to spare for the good fight, is savoring a triumph won not in the homeland that imprisoned and rejected him, but in the confines of federal court in Los Angeles.

Last week, the government of Argentina agreed to settle damage claims by Siderman and his family stemming from the harrowing period of military rule that began in 1976, when Siderman was kidnapped and tortured and his family was forced to flee the country. In his absence, Siderman alleged, military cronies looted his family's property and other assets, once worth more than $25 million.

In what civil libertarians are calling a landmark human rights case, Argentina, by settling out of court, avoided the ignominy of becoming the first foreign government ever put on trial in the United States for abuses committed on its own soil.

The fact that Buenos Aires succumbed in this politically charged case--and the fact that a U.S. appeals panel had ordered that the expatriate's claim be heard here--were huge victories for the Siderman family and the legal team, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, that waged a 14-year legal battle.

"This decision is the dream of my life," an elated Siderman said this weekend in his son's Santa Monica apartment. "This shows that, with persistence, human rights can prevail," the courtly, old-world gentleman added.

The administration of President Carlos Saul Menem, still grappling with extreme right-wing elements and an occasionally restive military, clearly wanted to avoid the international spectacle of a Los Angeles trial that would revisit the horrors of the dirty war and its sinister subtext: rabid anti-Semitism.

"The government wants to be done with the past and above all what happened during the dictatorship," noted Ernesto Tenembaum, political editor of Pagina 12, a respected Buenos Aires daily.

Both sides agreed not to reveal details of the settlement.

But published accounts in Buenos Aires put Siderman's retribution at $6 million. Analysts said that would be among the largest--if not the largest--payout ever made to a victim of the dirty war. Most estimates say the reign of the military dictatorship claimed more than 10,000 lives, mostly "disappeared," and inflicted lasting harm on thousands of survivors.

Argentine officials have not commented on the substance of the allegations, although fiercely disputing Siderman's right to sue in a U.S. court. Even in court, the Argentine government never directly challenged the former businessman's central assertion: that he was kidnapped and tortured and that he and his family were forced to flee their native land. But there has been no apology or admission of wrongdoing.

Why were the Sidermans, a distinctly nonpolitical family dedicated to commerce, targeted?

"I have no doubt that this disgrace happened to us because we were Jewish," Siderman, now a U.S. citizen, said the other evening as he prepared for a Rosh Hashana dinner with his son and daughter, also now U.S. residents. It was a fortuitous circumstance, pointed out his son, Carlos, that the family's wealth provided ample opportunity for plunder.

In fact, Jews like Siderman were a particular focus of the military government that reigned between spring 1976 and December 1983. Many were hunted down with a fanaticism that recalled the Nazi regime so admired by many of Argentina's military men, who worried about Jews' "subversive" leanings in a society that prides itself as the most European, and civilized, nation in Latin America.

Siderman still recalls the virulent epithets--"Dirty Jew!"--as the fatigue-clad, machine-gun toting goons pounded on his front door on the evening of March 24, 1976, when a coup d'etat shattered the then-prosperous existence of the Siderman family and ushered in one of the darker chapters for human rights in recent times.

In one of many ironies, Siderman's parents were Ukrainian immigrants who escaped anti-Semitism in imperial Russia and began a flourishing business installing parquet floors.

Siderman suffers ill health from his beating and torture, which left him near death. His wife, Lea Siderman, remains traumatized.

The case is legally significant on several levels, experts said, not the least of which is that it represents the first time that a lawsuit in the United States has led to a foreign government being held accountable for abuses that occurred abroad.

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