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Argentina forces DNA tests in 'dirty war' cases

Valuing truth over the right to privacy, Argentina is forcing extraction of DNA from people who may have been born to political prisoners slain a quarter-century ago.
Argentina Forced DNA
Argentine Horacio Pietragalla holds a photo of himself with his mother, Liliana Corti. Pietragalla, who was kidnapped when he was a few months old and given to another family, discovered his true identity at age 27.Natacha Pisarenko / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Valuing truth over the right to privacy, Argentina's Congress has authorized the forced extraction of DNA from people who may have been born to political prisoners slain a quarter-century ago — even when they don't want to know their birth parents.

Human rights activists hope the new law will help find about 400 people stolen as babies, many from women who were kidnapped and gave birth inside clandestine torture centers during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. Thousands of leftists disappeared in what became known as the "dirty war" against political dissent.

Others see the new law as unacceptable government intrusion, legalizing the violation of a person's very identity. And as written, it could have much broader implications, enabling DNA to be sought from anyone whenever a judge determines the evidence to be "absolutely necessary."

Children of the "disappeared" were often given to military or police families considered loyal to the military government. Some have grown up not even knowing they were adopted until activists or judges announced efforts to obtain their DNA.

The project of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, close allies of President Cristina Fernandez, was approved by a 58-1 vote of the Senate on Wednesday. Since it has already passed in the lower house, it will become law once it is published in Argentina's official bulletin.

Recovering their grandchildren has been a priority for the group since they first began demonstrating in front of the presidential palace in 1977, carrying pictures of their disappeared relatives.

Some courts cited privacy
DNA technology has helped them identify 98 of 500 children they believe were born in prison or kidnapped as infants.

Using survivors' testimony, documents from birth families and adoption records, they have persuaded some judges to seek DNA from suspected victims of the "dirty war." But courts have sometimes ruled that a child's right to privacy outweighs a grandmother's right to know.

The new law legalizes the extraction of "minimal amounts of blood, saliva, skin, hair or other biological samples" to determine identity. If a person refuses to provide a sample, a judge can issue a warrant for genetic material from a hairbrush, toothbrush, clothing or other objects.

"It's an absolute invasion of the right to biological privacy," constitutional lawyer Gregorio Badeni told The Associated Press. "No one has the right to know what I have inside my body. That belongs only to me. I can give it up voluntarily, but no one can obligate me to deliver it."

Estela de Carlotto, who heads the grandmothers group, disagrees.

By allowing officials to extract DNA from personal effects, the law "doesn't violate in any way the body or the privacy," she said. "It will surely help discover the identity of the grandchildren we have been searching for for so many years."

Is media titan the real target?
Elisa Carrio, a leading political rival of the president, suggests another motivation: targeting Ernestina Herrera de Noble, the director of Grupo Clarin, Argentina's dominant media group and an opponent of Fernandez and her husband, a former president.

The grandmothers group believes two babies Herrera adopted in 1976 were stolen from women who gave birth in prison before being killed. For years, their efforts to resolve the case have been stymied because Herrera's adoptive children — now in their 30s — have refused to submit to blood or saliva tests.

The Argentine law may be unprecedented in requiring tests of people who aren't suspected of crimes, said Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director for the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, Calif.

Large forensic DNA databases in Britain and the U.S. have generated controversy because they include people who have been arrested but not convicted or, in some cases, even charged. Pilot projects in Britain, the U.S. and France that used DNA tests to confirm family ties of asylum seekers also have raised ethical concerns.

The Argentine law has created a furor among some rights advocates.

"If an adult doesn't want to know his origins, you have to respect it," said Julio Strassera, a former prosecutor who put top military leaders on trial.

Some who have recovered their identities welcome the law, saying it removes a heavy burden from people who suspect they might have been stolen at birth.

"The state cannot leave in the hands of a young person, raised by a member of the military, manipulated by guilt, the decision of whether or not to learn his true identity," said Horacio Pietragalla, who learned in 2003 that he was taken as a baby from his biological mother, Liliana Corti.

Under the new law, the state "tells you the truth. After that, you have to decide what you want to do with that truth," he said.

No guarantee test will remain private
In the past, DNA findings have sometimes been made public against an orphan's wishes, either because a judge announced it or because the biological family released the information. The new law provides no guarantee of privacy either.

Pietragalla has reconnected with his biological family, but others want nothing to do with their blood relatives.

Among them is Evelyn Vazquez, who refused in 2001 to submit to a blood test, hoping to prevent DNA results from being used against her adoptive father, former Navy officer Policarpo Vazquez, who faced charges of child theft during the military dictatorship. The Supreme Court upheld her refusal at the time, citing her right to privacy.

In 1999, Vazquez had admitted that he and his wife had adopted her when the baby was offered to them without documents in 1978, though he said he did not know if her biological parents had been kidnapped and killed.

As part of the continuing investigation, a federal judge ordered a search of Evelyn Vazquez's personal effects last year and DNA from her toothbrush and underwear finally proved that her parents were armed Montoneros militants killed in 1977.

The Argentine government estimates about 13,000 people died in the crackdown on dissent. The grandmothers put the toll closer to 30,000.