Nibia Zabalzagaray and the long arc of justice

UPDATE – January 5, 2015

(1) “EL OFICIAL CUMPLÍA UNA PENA DE 28 AÑOS POR EL CASO SABALSAGARAY: Falleció el general retirado Miguel Dalmao;
El general Miguel Dalmao falleció ayer en el CTI del Hospital Militar, donde se encontraba internado aquejado por varias dolencias cardíacas y respiratorias,” El Pais (Montevideo), 30 de diciembre 2014.

(2) EFE, “Muere Miguel Dalmao, general uruguayo condenado por crímenes en la dictadura,” La Vanguardia (Montevideo), 29 de diciembre 2014.

The original article, below, was published on May 9, 2013.

“(T)he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we must bear. Let us bear it–bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination. And I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why I am opposed to the war in Vietnam,” Sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967.

The Case of Nibia Zabalsagaray (Sabalsagaray)

Uruguayan General Miguel Dalmao has been found guilty of the murder of Nibia Sabalsagaray in 1974.

See Associated Press (Buenos Aires, “Uruguayan general found guilty of junta’s 1974 murder of communist; General Miguel Dalmao convicted of murder of professor and activist Nibia Sabalsagaray during Uruguay’s military dictatorship,” The Guardian, May 9, 2013. (16.36 EDT)

See also:

“Uruguay Supreme Court annuls amnesty law, as accountability continues in Latin America, on international law, policy, practice, November 3, 2010 (with picture of Nibia Sabalsagaray).

I remember Nibia Sabalsagaray, or rather her case at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)–or the Comision Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH), as it is known in Spanish. The IACHR is the human rights organ of the Organization of American States, established pursuant to both the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights (in force since 1978).

Although much litigation has ensued, including decisions by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and several decisions by the Uruguayan Supreme Court on what amounted to an amnesty law, the original decision of the IACHR, issued four years after the facts, is worth recalling in detail.

The 1978 Decision on Case 1870 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

The Text of the Commission’s decision in Case No. 1870 (Nibia Zabalsagaray) follows:

Case 1870



In a communication dated August 22, 1974, the following was denounced:

A young woman, a 20-year-old student and professor, NIBIA ZABALZAGARAY, (was) killed as a result of tortures inflicted at the Police Station at Señaleros, located in the El Peñarol neighborhood of Montevideo.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in a note dated October 8, 1974, transmitted the pertinent parts of the denunciation to the Government of Uruguay and requested that it provide the appropriate information;

The Government, in a note date May 23, 1975, requested a ninety-day extension in order to provide the information requested;

The Commission, in a note dated June 12, 1975, granted a thirty-day extension to the Government, which elapsed on July 12, 1975;

The Government of Uruguay, in a note dated July 12, 1975, reported the following to the Commission:

I – The death of Miss Nibia Zabalzagaray

The individual in question was detained on July 29, 1974 and within 24 hours of her detention she committed suicide in her cell.

The competent judicial organ intervened, ordering an opinion from the forensic physician. His reports states: ‘asphyxiation by suspension’ (hanging) as the cause of death.

The intervening Judge, in the absence of proof of any illegality, closed the proceedings on August 2, 1974.

The claimant, in a communication dated July 8, 1975, provided additional information to the Commission, the pertinent parts of which appear below:

NIBIA ZABALZAGARAY – professor of literature, single, 24 years of age.

The individual was detained, tortured and killed, all within a period of 10 hours, on Saturday, June 29, 1974.

At 1:30 a.m., three men dressed in military uniforms and two civilians appeared at her room at the Campomar Home for Workers’ Children in Montevideo (she was a native of the Department of Colonia). They interrogated her as to her political convictions and left with her at 3:00 a.m. and refused to reveal their identity and the place to which they were taking her.

Ten hours later, those in charge of the residence received a phone call informing them that Nibia Zabalzagaray had died and that they should inform some member of the family so that the latter might claim her body at the Military Hospital. Her uncles appeared there and were informed that Nibia was dead on arrival at the Hospital, and that her personal effects and her clothing (she was nude) should be claimed at the barracks of the Engineers Battalion No 5 and Transmissions Service (Camino Casavalle, Montevideo).

The death certificate, issued by Dr José Alejandro Mautone, attributed the death to suicide by hanging.

The relatives were denied the necessary authorization to conduct another autopsy. The corpse, however, underwent an external examination by experts, the results of which contradicted the official ruling.

The true cause of her death is asphyxiation through application of the torture known as the “dry submarine” (application of a plastic bag on the head, thereby preventing breathing) or cardiac arrest under torture.

No judicial action was taken as a result of the death of Nibia Zabalzagaray. No official received any military disciplinary punishment.

The Commission, in a note date October 24, 1975, forwarded to the Government of Uruguay the pertinent parts of the additional information provided by the claimant, and requested that the Government provide the following information:

b) A copy of the legal record and actions taken during the proceedings that were closed by the intervening judge on August 2, 1974, ‘in the absence of proof of any illegality,’ as stated in the corresponding part of the note from Your Excellency’s Government of July 12 of this year.

c) A copy of the autopsy on the corpse of Miss Nibia Zabalzagaray.

The Government of Uruguay, in a note dated May 18, 1976, refused to provide the information specified in the foregoing paragraph;

To date, the Government of Uruguay has still not provided the Commission either a copy of the actions taken during the proceedings or a copy of the autopsy on the corpse of Miss Nibia Zabalzagaray; and

From the information provided by the Government itself, it is concluded that no other proceeding or internal remedy is pending decision,


1. To declare that all available information leads to the presumption that the cause of death of Miss Nibia Zabalzagaray, who was arrested by authorities and died ten hours after her arrest while in the custody of authorities, was a consequence of acts of violence she experienced during her detention.

2. To point out to the Government of Uruguay that the events denounced constitute a serious violation of the right to life (Article I of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man).

3. To recommend to the Government: a) that it order a thorough and impartial investigation to determine the true cause of the death denounced and, in accordance with Uruguayan laws, punish the individual or individuals responsible, should it be proven that a murder has been committed; b) that it advise the Commission of the measures taken to implement the recommendations contained in the above section within a period of no more than thirty days.

4. To forward this resolution to the Government of Uruguay and to claimants.

5. To include this resolution in its Annual Report to the General Assembly of the Organization (Article 9 (bis), c, iii of the Statute) if the Government has not advised the Commission of the measures it has taken to conduct the investigation recommended under operative paragraph 3 within a thirty-day period.

Adopted at meeting Nº 559th, January 30, 1978 (45th Session) and forwarded to the Government of Uruguay on February 21, 1978.

–Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Decision on Case 1870, January 20, 1978
–The Spanish text is found here.

While President Jimmy Carter signed the Ameican Convention on Human Rights in 1978, it has never been ratified by the United States.

Syria and the Long Arc of Justice

40 years is a long time to wait for justice, but at least it gives Bashar al-Assad and the leaders of Syria something to look forward to in their old age. Moreover, as the indictments and trials of Slobodan Milosovich, Radovan Karadzich, and Ratko Mladich suggest, things are changing. Al-Assad and his henchmen may not have to wait so long.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.