Ex-political prisoner speaks
In November 1975, while still in
the hospital after giving birth, Elena
Sevilla was arrested for associating
with supposedly subversive individuals.
She lived as a political prisoner in Argentina until her release in July 1978, and while her story ends in success, people throughout the world continue to suffer from unjust imprisonment where stories do not end in release.
The College's chapter of Amnesty International brought Sevilla to campus Monday, April 6 to speak to the community about her experience as a political prisoner. Sevilla, who came to the United States approximately 30 years ago, said that Argentina was not unique: "Everybody [in South America] had their military governments. As a matter of fact, all those military governments helped each other persecuting and torturing and killing whatever they considered terrorists."
She said that her involvement with politics was through an organization called Peronist Youth, which focused on improving literacy for people in poor neighborhoods and providing clothes for them. Her firsthand experience with the Argentine military dictatorship took place in 1975, earlier in the very same year she was arrested, when her former husband was detained for advertising the formation of a new political party called the Authentic Peronists. She eventually learned that his formal charge was possession of subversive materials, which range from books to all types of printed and broadcast media.
Later that year, Sevilla was arrested. At first, "everything seemed fine for three days, a week maybe," she said. After a short time, however, "the military took control of all the prisons where the political prisoners were." The earlier prisoner privileges of daily family visits as well as the ability of prisoners to receive packages were soon revoked, though this policy was modified to allow family visits once a week. It was during her imprisonment that talks of the use of torture began.
Sevilla recalled that people were isolated and locked away for two weeks at a time. She said that torture appeared to be isolated. Later on, however, Sevilla said that the screams of those being tortured would permeate the prison.
As more time passed in prison, Sevilla would be transferred from one prison to another. She described the living conditions as uncomfortable. Although Sevilla was placed in a cell with 20 other women, she did note that everyone in the prison made an effort to make their incarceration more bearable.
Sevilla's release was achieved largely through the efforts of her twin sister, who at that time was enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
According to Sevilla, intimidation from the Argentine military dictatorship prevented her twin from acting at first. After a while, however, Sevilla's twin sister contacted a local church group and was told to press the case to the local chapter of Amnesty International.
From there, the global headquarters of Amnesty International in London was informed, and Sevilla's case was passed to another Amnesty International branch in Vienna, Austria. It was in Vienna that thousands wrote letters and contributed their signatures requesting Sevilla's release. Meanwhile, in Ithaca, scientists and physics organizations wrote letters of their own petitioning for her release. Eventually, the United States Department of State became involved, ensuring that Sevilla was taken out of prison.
Sevilla said she felt great disbelief when she stepped off the plane in the United States to be greeted by a huge throng of people.
Susie Hufstader '12, who is the interim president of Amnesty International at the College and attended the lecture, praised the efforts of the organization in bringing Sevilla to the College. "What I got out of her story was the importance of activism on cases like hers. Amnesty does a great job, and it is important for large numbers of people to write letters and sign petitions," Hufstader said. She added that although Sevilla's experience happened long ago, the mistreatment of individuals by their own governments still occurs today. "It is also very important that Americans pressure their governments to pressure other governments. Her story is in the past, but cases like hers are still happening all over the world."