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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 11-02-2023 07:00

Crime, punishment and the law

Few will shed many tears over what awaits the eight hooligans who killed Fernando Báez Sosa, but the trial, conducted as it was before a vociferous audience of millions, leaves a bad taste behind.

The trial of the eight young hooligans who three years ago beat to death Fernando Báez Sosa in Villa Gesell, punching and kicking him in the head after he had lost consciousness, took place before an informal jury of many millions of men and women, many of whom loudly demanded that they pay a very high price for what they had done. For days on end, newspapers devoted entire pages to the proceedings and television programmes recorded the changing facial expressions of the accused looking for signs of defiance or contrition.

Much was made of the social and even ethnic differences between the “rugby players” and their victim, with the former being portrayed as middle-class rowdies and the latter, being of Paraguayan origin, as at best an upwardly-mobile plebeian, a “wretched black” in the eyes of those who pounced on him. For some, it all boiled down to a matter of them against us.

Some politically active people, presumably influenced by the North American obsession with race and determined to import it, suggested that it was yet another case of “white rage” and that despite being “Latinos” or “Hispanics”, and therefore coloured by US standards, most pale-skinned Argentines – among them the eight lined up in the dock – thought they were a cut above those of different stock and had better face up to it.

Did the “rugby players,” as they became known, get a fair trial? Or, to put it another way, would the verdict have been any different had the three magistrates judging them not found themselves in the spotlight, with huge numbers of people with strong opinions, plus much of the press, waiting impatiently to see what they would come up with? While it is possible that, had the trial been conducted behind closed doors and the media been forced to make do with sketched portraits of the accused, as often happens in some jurisdictions abroad, the judges would have come to an identical conclusion, in a country which has grown accustomed to “revolving-door justice,” with dangerous felons walking free after getting lightly rapped on their knuckles so they can continue their careers in crime, a certain degree of scepticism is permissible.

While the trial was in progress, much was made of the alleged need to take into proper account the feelings of the victims – that is, of the murdered youth’s parents. Not surprisingly, they (as would most of us in similar circumstances) wanted the verdict to be as harsh as the law allowed for which, since Argentina has abolished the death penalty, would mean life in jail for all of the eight men involved and not merely five of them, with the other three getting off “lightly” with a mere 15 years behind bars. Were the bereaved listened to by the magistrates? It would appear that most people thought they should be.

Argentina is far from being the only country in which it is widely assumed that being a victim gives one moral authority. This way of looking at things has become so normal in English-speaking countries that dozens of disparate groups openly compete in an effort to convince people that they have been more brutally victimised than any of their rivals and therefore deserve to be compensated. Among the most successful in this fashionable endeavour have been the leaders of the Black Lives Matter faction who managed to get most other North Americans, including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and plenty of others in Europe and further afield, to overlook the extreme violence of the protests they organised a couple of years back, with hundreds of buildings burned to the ground and a spike in the number of murders, especially in predominantly black districts, saying they thought the “mostly peaceful” protests were fully justified.

In Argentina, the assumption that victimhood adds to one’s moral authority underpins the human rights movement and has greatly influenced the make-up of the Kirchnerite government, with having parents who “disappeared” during the dictatorship being regarded as a qualification for a top job. This is unfortunate because, among other things, it lets the rest of the population off the hook by insinuating that, while it is admirable and therefore exceptional that mothers stand up for their children, other people’s indifference to their fate is only to be expected. It is also a recipe for clan warfare, with family connections weighing far more heavily than respect for the ethical considerations that, by and large, hold civilised societies together.

In any event, the legal systems that now exist were set up only after it was realised that letting victims determine what should be done to those who harm them was barbaric. Most people who have suffered at the hands of others are far more interested in avenging themselves than in ensuring that anything resembling justice be done. This may be perfectly natural, but, in the West at least, few would want their country’s legal system to be based on it, as are those of places like Iran and Afghanistan in which sadistic punishments are routine. In parts of the Muslim world, victims or members of their families can decide whether criminals live, die or get mutilated. In Iran, an individual who blinds another may have his or her eyes gouged out by State-employed medics unless the victim of such an atrocity objects. 

Perhaps few will shed many tears over what awaits the eight hooligans who killed Fernando Báez Sosa outside a nightclub in Villa Gesell that night three years ago, but the trial, conducted as it was before a vociferous audience of millions, leaves a bad taste behind. In its way, it was like a public hanging, with a mob howling insults at young men who had come to symbolise the violence which is lurking just below the surface not just here but also in many other places. Will the verdict serve to deter others who have a fondness for a potentially murderous punch-up and enjoy attacking outsiders who do not belong to their clique? Or will it fuel the resentment so many feel in a society which continues to slide downhill and are prone to lash out at those they think are unlike them? No doubt time will provide us with the answers to these disturbing questions.


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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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