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Second Ex-Leader Held in Argentina Baby Kidnappings

South America: Former junta member is arrested in scheme in which prisoners were killed after giving birth.

November 25, 1998|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — A judge investigating the systematic kidnapping of babies by the dictatorship that ruled Argentina in the 1970s and '80s ordered the arrest Tuesday of former Adm. Emilio Massera, a feared member of the military junta.

Massera, 73, became the second former Argentine military ruler arrested this year in accelerating investigations of the regime's practice of holding pregnant political prisoners until they gave birth, killing the women and turning the babies over to members of the security forces. The head of the junta, Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, was arrested in June on charges that he was the commander of the conspiracy.

Massera joins Videla and ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in London last month and awaits a ruling on his status today, as onetime tyrants brought down by a worldwide effort to punish the atrocities that occurred in South America in the 1970s.

After testifying for most of the day Tuesday before the investigating judge, Maria Servini de Cubria, Massera was arrested on suspicion of unlawful detention of children and falsification of documents. Police sped him past a mob of demonstrators at the courthouse to the outskirts of this capital city, where he was held in a detention center at the Campo de Mayo army base.

Ironically enough, the army base was the site of a clandestine "maternity ward" where the doomed prisoners gave birth. Another ward functioned in the Navy School of Mechanics, a notorious concentration camp operated by naval commandos who killed, tortured and kidnapped under Massera's command. Human rights activists have documented the disappearances of 250 babies and estimate that the actual number is twice that high.

Massera and Videla were convicted in 1985 of murder and other crimes perpetrated by the regime, which killed as many as 30,000 people from 1976 to 1983. They were pardoned and released in 1990. But amnesties granted to appease the armed forces specifically exempted the barbaric practice of stealing babies, a loophole that has been exploited with increasing success as a changing political climate helps embolden human rights advocates.

Massera has insisted in interviews and court testimony that he waged a legitimate war against leftist guerrillas and is not guilty of any atrocities.

But even among the dictatorship's rogues' gallery of uniformed thugs and torturers, Massera is a sinister figure. With his strong jaw and slick black hair, the thickset admiral cultivated a simultaneously menacing and dashing style.

He was the junta's ideologue and its darkly articulate orator. In a typical example of fascistic and anti-Semitic rhetoric, he once denounced Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx as the greatest enemies of Western civilization.

Like Videla, who awaits trial under house arrest because of his fragile health, Massera is expected to appeal the arrest order. Both are also on a list of more than 150 military men sought for human rights abuses of Spanish citizens by the same Spanish judge who ordered Pinochet's arrest.

But Argentine leaders refuse to cooperate with the Spanish probe, saying that the progress in cases against high-ranking officers proves that justice is possible here.

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