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Obituaries

J. Siderman, 90; Sued Over 'Dirty War'

April 13, 2002|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jose "Pepe" Siderman, who fled his native Argentina during the military regime's "dirty war" that targeted opponents and later won a landmark human rights case against the South American nation, died Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 90 and died of causes associated with old age.

A courtly former businessman whose elegant demeanor bespoke Old World values, Siderman was kidnapped and tortured by Argentina's military government, which also looted his family's property and assets, once valued at more than $25 million.

Siderman was one of the survivors of the brutal period of military rule that began in 1976 and eventually claimed more than 10,000 lives. Most of the victims disappeared without a trace.

After moving to the United States, Siderman and his family pursued a legal fight that culminated in 1996, when Buenos Aires agreed to settle damage claims.

"This decision is the dream of my life," Siderman said shortly after the case was settled, speaking at his son's Santa Monica home. "This shows that, with persistence, human rights can prevail."

At a memorial service Friday at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles, family members recalled Siderman's steadfastness.

"To me, Pepe embodied the word 'honor,'" said his granddaughter Marcela Siderman, 28, of Los Angeles. "He lived his life with honor.... He fought for what was just and right. He was patient and kind and generous and always dignified."

Lawyers representing Siderman, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, were able to win a precedent-setting U.S. Court of Appeals ruling allowing the case against Argentina to proceed in U.S. federal courts. The appeals panel rejected Argentina's claims of immunity.

The much-publicized case also added to the voluminous documentation of the seven-year dirty war and its nefarious subtext of anti-Semitism. Many of Argentina's military men were admirers of Adolf Hitler and Germany's Nazi regime. Yet Argentina is a nation regarded by many of its citizens as the most European, and civilized, in Latin America.

"At various points I didn't know if I was dead or alive," Siderman said in a statement filed in court, recalling seven days of torture that included beatings, deprivation of food and water, and electric shocks--all while he was blindfolded.

"I lived Dante's stories of hell, the inferno. I could see animals flying. I saw everything that Dante had written about."

Siderman recalled the shouted epithets--"dirty Jew!"--as armed goons pounded on his front door March 24, 1976, when a coup d'etat shattered the prosperous existence of the Siderman family.

"I have no doubt that this disgrace happened to us because we were Jewish," Siderman said.

Upon his release, he said, a note was left in his pocket.

He was warned to leave or face death. The family fled Argentina, eventually landing in the United States, where a daughter already lived. Siderman became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

During the legal battle, Argentine authorities never directly denied Siderman's allegations of kidnapping, torture and forced exile. But Buenos Aires fiercely disputed his right to sue in a U.S. court.

A U.S. appeals court disagreed, leading to a reported $6-million settlement by the Argentine government.

The U.S. court's decision was unique in that it provided an opening for foreign governments to be held accountable for abuses that occurred abroad.

Born and raised in Argentina, Siderman was the product of a classic Eastern European immigrant family, one of the multitudes that fled poverty and oppression in Europe to settle in the New World. His parents were Ukrainians who left imperial Russia for South America and began a business installing parquet floors.

Siderman said he never imagined that the nation's politics would turn so ugly.

"I wanted my children to have a good, comfortable life--after all that's why I worked so hard for so many decades," Siderman said in a court statement. "Before I die I want to see justice done."

Surviving Siderman are his wife, Lea "Lela" Siderman; his three children, Alicia and Carlos of Southern California, and Susana of Florida; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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