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Argentina's Arrest of Ex-Leader in 'Dirty War' Spurs Debate

World Perspective | JUSTICE

June 20, 1998|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — The old man who once terrorized Argentina has become the newest inmate in the VIP cellblock of a prison that opened during his dictatorship and bears a plaque with his name on it.

At 72, former Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla looks gaunt and haunted, a solitary shadow of a tyrant whose jailers in Caseros Prison still address him as "my general."

More than a week after his surprise arrest on charges of ordering the abduction of babies during his regime two decades ago, Videla remains defiant, refusing to answer investigators' questions. And he has shown that, 15 years after the return of democracy to Argentina, he still inspires passion, disgust and debate.

His case has revived old ghosts and raised the possibility that other former military leaders will go to jail, a seemingly unthinkable prospect only a few years ago because of the threat of a coup.

Moreover, there is fervent speculation about the timing and motive. Nothing is simple in the labyrinth where Argentine politics and justice intermingle.

Political opponents accuse President Carlos Menem's government of orchestrating the arrest to enhance its image here and overseas. European judges are pursuing investigations of crimes against their citizens during Argentina's "dirty war"--which claimed an estimated 30,000 lives between 1976 and 1983--and justice and human rights will be big issues in Argentina's presidential election next year.

The justice system is merely doing its duty, Menem retorted recently, saying, "I have never heard so many stupidities at once as I have during the past few days."

Intrigue aside, Argentines appear pleasantly surprised by Videla's fall.

"To have seen him behind bars like a common criminal made me feel good," said Estela de Carlotto of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, a group dedicated to tracking down abducted grandchildren who have grown up with new families. "It is healthy for the society, and it shows we are on the right track to achieving necessary justice."

Although Videla and his cronies were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1985 for their atrocities, Menem pardoned them--along with leftist guerrillas--five years later.

But the pardons had an important exception--the crimes that spawned one of the dirty war's most-heinous chapters. Human rights advocates have compiled 232 cases that reveal a systematic military plan to steal babies from political prisoners.

The military ran maternity wards in its concentration camps and prepared lists of military families that did not have children. Most of the mothers were killed after their babies were taken away.

The probe that resulted in Videla's arrest had inched along for years until the recent testimony of a mid-level officer in the former regime, who told federal Judge Roberto Marquevich that procedures for dealing with infants born in captivity were dictated from above. That spurred Videla's arrest.

Skeptics point out that Marquevich issued the order on the same day Menem traveled to France, where the dirty war has been a source of tension since a French court convicted an Argentine intelligence officer in the murders of two French nuns in 1977.

Marquevich fed suspicions because he went after Videla without first questioning other officers in the former regime's chain of command, observers say.

"We should at least look at Judge Marquevich's attitude with great attention," said Simon Lazara, a human rights activist. "We have to make sure there will not be a political manipulation of this case."

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