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Jacobo Timerman; Journalist Wrote of His Torture at Hands of Argentine Military

November 12, 1999|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Jacobo Timerman, an Argentine author who wrote about his experiences of torture and abuse as a political prisoner during his country's "dirty war" in the 1981 book "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," died Thursday. He was 76.

The writer, who had suffered a heart attack earlier this year, died in his downtown Buenos Aires apartment, said his son, Hector.

One of Argentina's most distinguished journalists, Timerman became the focus of an international human rights debate when he was hauled away April 15, 1977, by Argentine military forces. In a crackdown on all dissenting news media, authorities had already shut down his liberal newspaper, La Opinion.

He was not released until two years later, despite the intervention of President Jimmy Carter, several U.S. congressmen and numerous American and international Jewish groups. Timerman and his champions claimed he was imprisoned because of anti-Semitism as much as for his criticism of the military regime.

Timerman said in Israel after his release: "Once, a member of the military junta said of me, 'He's in prison because he is an arrogant Jew.' Yes, I was born arrogant, because I am a proud Jew."

He later commented in his book, "La Opinion committed what in Argentina was construed as a capital sin: It used precise language to describe actual situations so that its articles were comprehensible and direct."

After his arrest, Timerman's abductors tortured him and imprisoned him for months, then presented him for court-martial. He was questioned by military rulers about alleged links with left-wing guerrillas and his business association with David Graiver.

The Argentine financier Graiver had been accused of investing $17 million in guerrilla loot amassed from kidnapping ransoms and bank robberies. Although Timerman often joked that a "rich aunt" had put up the money for La Opinion, the military learned that Graiver was his key financial backer.

Even though the military panel's seven-month investigation failed to find enough evidence to charge Timerman with any crime and Argentina's Supreme Court ordered him freed, the government punished him anyway. It took away his political rights, placed his property in state custody and deprived him of the right to work professionally--conditions that did not change when he was freed. In 1979, released from both prison and subsequent house arrest, he was expelled to Israel.

"I see how, gradually," Timerman told American newsmen during the Iran hostage crisis, "the theme of the Tehran hostages doesn't horrify anybody. We have incorporated the hostage business into our sensibilities. It's become not a moral question but a political question, a question of talking, with different viewpoints."

Timerman's two years of captivity eventually became fodder for his book, a gripping story of the abuse and torture he suffered as the Argentine military sought to stifle its political opponents and other dissidents.

The book drew attention to the disappearances of thousands of people during Argentina's seven-year rule by the military.

An Argentine government report says 9,000 leftists and other political dissidents disappeared under the dictatorship; human rights groups say the figure is as high as 30,000.

Timerman's personal story was turned into an NBC television movie in 1983 starring Roy Scheider as Timerman and Liv Ullmann as his wife. The title was similar to that of his book, "Jacobo Timerman: Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number."

Former Times Argentina correspondent David F. Belnap, in an Op-Ed article shortly after publication of the book, called fellow newsman Timerman "a master craftsman, as able a packager of printed words for public consumption as Argentina has produced in this century.

"His book . . . shows that these talents were not eroded by 12 months of torture and incarceration in a variety of jails . . . followed by 18 months of house arrest," Belnap wrote.

Born in Russia, Timerman moved to Argentina with his family as a small child. He came to national prominence in his adopted country in the 1950s as founder and editor of Primera Plana (Front Page), a weekly news magazine. He later sold it and founded a competitor, Confirmado. His final enterprise was La Opinion, a daily tabloid patterned after the Paris daily of the intellectual left, Le Monde.

Timerman's newspaper appealed to intellectuals who often read between the lines to learn what La Opinion thought was going on behind the scenes in the military government.

Among Timerman's later writings were the 1982 book "The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon" and the 1990 book "Cuba: A Journey," his appraisal of the Cuban revolution.

Timerman is survived by his three sons, Hector, Daniel, and Javier.

Memorial services will be held Friday in a private cemetery in the province of Buenos Aires.

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