Obituary: Emilio Fermin Mignone

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The Independent Culture
EMILIO FERMIN MIGNONE was at once a tower of strength and very fragile. Slightly hunched, he had a quiet sense of humour in the contained fashion of lives tinged with tragedy. He was affable, knowledgeable and consistent in his speech in the style of most veteran lawyers.

Argentina's constitutional present and its dictatorial past held for him a need to understand a political transition that he had accepted. But nobody understood how he had come to terms with it, except through his strong religious belief. He lived and campaigned with his personal tragedy ever present: his daughter was abducted and became one of Argentina's thousands of "disappeared" on 24 May 1976. She was a child psychologist working in a shanty town in the Flores area west of Buenos Aires. Her work was seen as subversive by the military dictatorship that seized power that March.

The obituaries in Argentina recall him as an institutional man - a civil servant in human rights. He founded the Centre for Legal and Social Studies ("Cels") in 1978, and became one of Argentina's most notable and persistent human rights campaigners. He had begun his protest against the dictatorship shortly after its installation, distributing his criticism to Buenos Aires newsrooms. His daughter had helped him deliver his circulars.

There has to be some significance that he died at the British Hospital in Buenos Aires. As a member of the executive of the Article 19 human rights organisation in the late 1980s he enjoyed his brief visits to London and described it as the one city in the world where he felt at peace.

Mignone began his working life as a lawyer and a teacher. Between 1948 and 1952 he edited his home town newspaper, La Voz de Lujn - ironically, during the government of Pern, who gagged all the Argentine press from the time he took office in 1946. Mignone, however, held a sympathy for Peronism's populist social welfare.

He lived in Washington DC for a time in the mid-1960s, advising on education at the Organisation of American States. In 1968, he became under-secretary for education during the regime of General Juan Carlos Ongana, a small- time despot who is largely responsible for precipitating Argentina into near civil war in the 1970s, but in whom Mignone saw a staunch Roman Catholic and a valid successor to Peronism.

In June 1973, the elected Peronist government appointed him to head the national university of Lujn, a job he held until the coup. During the dictatorship he was a member of the executive of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH) and was constantly followed and threatened by military security agents. In 1986 he published his essay "Church and Dictatorship", criticising the Church for supporting the military regime.

In July 1985, during the trials of the military junta leaders, he told the former dictators: "You took government with a plan to kidnap, torture and murder." The remark shattered the silence in the courtroom, and shook the lingering sense of fear in Buenos Aires.

Andrew Graham-Yooll

Emilio Fermn Mignone, lawyer and human rights campaigner: born Lujn, Argentina 22 July 1922; married (five daughters); died Buenos Aires 21 December 1998.