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Update on the Sandra Orangutan Case in Argentina

By Steven Wise

Those who have been following the developments of Argentina’s Sandra Orangutan case through the Nonhuman Rights Project know that we were initially pleased by media reports that an Argentine appellate court had freed Sandra pursuant to a writ of habeas corpus sought by an Argentine group called AFADA. But when we downloaded the decision from the court’s website and had it translated, we realized that the decision contained none of the quotations the media reported it contained and that the court had neither issued a writ of habeas corpus, nor granted Sandra personhood for any purpose, nor ordered her moved to a sanctuary. We did not fail to notice that the appellate court was a criminal court.

By a 2-1 vote, the court did state, “… it is necessary to recognize the animal as a subject of rights, because non-human beings (animals) are entitled to rights, and therefore their protection is required by the corresponding jurisprudence.” This statement was not followed by citations to cases or statutes, but to two treatises. No examples of rights to which nonhuman animals in general, or Sandra in particular, are entitled were given. This concerned us because several American courts have written similar things that end up signifying nothing.

I noted in January that Prof. Dr. Benito Alaez Corral of the Department of Public Law at the University of Oviedo in Spain had told me that, after communicating with colleagues in the Argentina judiciary, he could assist us in understanding better what had occurred. We needed to understand, he said, that Sandra’s appellate court had remanded her case to the criminal court of the city of Buenos Aires according to a specific statute, Act Nr. 26.357. That statute transferred some judicial powers from the national judiciary, which is part of the Federal judiciary, to the Judiciary of the City of Buenos Aires, which is part of the provincial judiciary. Among the transferred powers the Judiciary of the City of Buenos Aires has is the power to decide criminal matters involving the animal mistreatment law Act Nr. 13.944. While the provincial court has the power to issue writs of habeas corpus under the Argentine Habeas Corpus Act, it lacks the power to issue writs of habeas corpus under Act Nr. 26.357—which happens, again, to be the statute the appellate court invoked when sending the case back to the provincial court. Moreover an official prosecutor was put in charge of moving the proceedings along.

By January, the NhRP believed that the provincial court to which Sandra’s case had been remanded lacked the power to issue a writ of habeas corpus on her behalf and possessed the power only to treat the matter as a regular animal mistreatment case. Finally, Professor Corral said that the statement by the appellate court about animals in general having rights is what we lawyers (both in civil law and common law countries) call dictum, which is a nonbinding statement unnecessary to an appellate court’s decision in a case.

At the end of February, it appears that there was a hearing in that Buenos Aires provincial court.  I say “appears” because we have, as yet, been unable to obtain the papers and, I am sorry to say, AFADA refuses to communicate with us. Nor does AFADA post all relevant court documents on its website, as does the Nonhuman Rights Project, for the world to candidly examine. Nor did AFADA respond when I sent it this blog post and asked it to add or delete anything needed to make it entirely accurate.

From what we can piece together, we believe that AFADA sought leave at that February hearing to become involved in the court proceedings along with, or instead of, the official prosecutor. We do not know what the ruling was or whether there was a ruling.

We now believe with reasonable certainty that there is no current habeas corpus proceeding, that Sandra has not been granted personhood, the right to habeas corpus, nor any other legal right, and that what is unfolding in the Buenos Aires provincial court is a regular animal welfare investigation. This is unsurprising, as the NhRP have seen the eagerness of some judges in the United States to understand our chimpanzee habeas corpus cases as animal welfare cases, even when we tell them loud and clear that they are not.

If we learn something that changes this opinion, I will write about it. Otherwise this is our final word on the Sandra Orangutan case.

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