Argentine Judge Dismisses "Rio Plata Rodney King" Case

Violence rocked an Argentine courtroom yesterday, after the judge presiding over what has become known in Argentina as the "Rio Plata Rodney King" case unexpectedly dismissed charges against two Buenos Aires police officers accused of beating a homeless man, ruling that the main piece of evidence in the trial, a videotape of the beating, proved clearly in favour of the defendants.

"The judge just stood up, banged his gavel and declared the case over," reported an anonymous witness who was inside the courtroom at the time, "and when they heard the judge say that, the victim's family and friends began to riot, throwing chairs and storming the bench. When they saw what was happening, the opposing supporters stormed down out of their seats to meet them and they started fighting. The bailiffs had to step in to protect the judge, who was in the middle of it. But I still saw him take a few punches to the stomach."

The riot was quickly brought under control by police who were waiting outside the building and no one was seriously injured, but the violence proved that the case has turned into an hot national issue in Argentina, where it has been brewing ever since the video of the beating was leaked onto the Internet last Thursday. To many Argentines, it has become a symbol of what they believe is a recent surge of police brutality against the country's poor, orchestrated by the government in order to win middle class votes. And this dismissal is unlikely to change that.

Still, public opinion remains rather evenly split on the matter, with 47% of those polled by this newspaper saying they agreed with the judge's decision and 45% responding that they thought the decision incorrect and possibly corrupt.

The judge, a veteran of the court system and well-respected among his peers, has declined to speak to the press, but did issue a statement following his evacuation from the courtroom.

"I made my decision to dismiss after the tape was replayed in slow motion," he said," When I had seen the event at normal speed twice previously, I agreed that there was excessive violence on behalf of the two defendants. However, upon watching the tape more closely, I noticed that the amount of physical contact seemed to have been exaggerated. When I requested that the tape be slowed down, I decided that I had been fooled and that any contact made by the defendants on the body of the plaintiff was incidental. It was a clear dive by Mr. Padilla."

Eduardo Padilla, the homeless man whose case rested on the video accidentally captured on tape by a tourist filming the Buenos Aires nightlife, repeated his own story to reporters later in the day, and pleaded with the public to step in in his defense.

According to Padilla, whose story has remained consistent throughout the trial, he was scavenging in a downtown alleyway attempting to find shelter for the night when a group of five or six off-duty policemen accosted and begin taunting him.

"I ignored them until one of the cops took out his baton and started waving it around like he wanted to hit me. That's when one of them grabbed me, and I could see they were about to put a beating to me. They were smiling and drunk, so I decided I had to take my chance and make a run for it before they did something."

Padilla claims he slipped out of the officer's grasp, and set off down the right flank of the alley, evading about four or five tackles, and eventually making it onto the street, where he believed he would be safe.

"But they kept after me. They didn't stop or care that people could see. They're protected, they can do what they want."

Padilla says the chase continued for several minutes, and that he was almost in the clear when a last gasp tackle by one of the officers sent him sprawling just outside the Eighteen Yard Box, the sports bar the tourist happened to be filming.

"The cop caught me right in the knee. And when they had me on the ground, that's when they started on me with their kicking and their punching and their batons."

The police officers, meanwhile, contradict Padilla's account, claiming that while they did come across the homeless man in the alley, they did not taunt him and only pursued when he fled because he was armed with a knife that he repeatedly refused to give up.

"There was never any unjustified beating," testified one of the two accused officers, Sgt. Javier Lopez, "The video clearly shows [Padilla] clutching his face as if in agony when, at that point, if any contact had been made, it was minimal and to his midsection. He was blatantly playacting and attempting to influence the judge's decision."

Unfortunately, the issue of Argentina's Rodney King is unlikely to be settled by facts and by who is right and wrong. Already, politicians are redrawing their battle lines around the issue, with those leaning to the left coming out in support of Padilla and those to the right defending the police. In the end, it may simply come down to who manages to extend the issue the farthest, make the most sensational statements, and yell the loudest.

Padilla has already begun.

"They will kill me," he screamed as police moved him from a police cruiser to a temporary holding facility this morning, "Look at me. I am a martyr. I am the first martyr. But if you do not stop the fascist swine I will not be the last."

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