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Judge Orders Officers Freed

The Argentine military men accused of rights abuses in the '70s and '80s may still face trials.

September 02, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — An Argentine judge ordered the release Monday of most of the 40 former military men being held on charges of murder and other crimes committed during the "dirty war" of the 1970s and '80s, days after the Spanish government said it would not seek their extradition.

President Nestor Kirchner used Spain's announcement to increase pressure on the Argentine Supreme Court to overturn the amnesty laws that prohibit trying the men here. On Monday, an Argentine judicial panel moved to bring new charges against the former military men and about 30 others.

"Now it's up to the [Supreme] Court to decide," Kirchner said. "We've always wanted to try them in Argentina. Now we have the ability to do so. Those who were responsible for the genocide of the dictatorship will have to take responsibility for their actions."

The former officers had been ordered held about six weeks ago, soon after Kirchner announced that he was repealing a decree by former President Fernando de la Rua that prohibited extraditing the men.

Authorities in Spain, France and other European nations have sought to prosecute the military men in connection with the death and disappearance of their countries' nationals in Argentina during the military dictatorship that ruled here from 1976 to 1983.

The dictatorship, among the bloodiest in Latin American history, silenced a burgeoning protest movement with widespread use of torture, kidnappings and extrajudicial executions. Thousands of victims were buried in clandestine cemeteries or tossed from airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said Friday that he would not seek the extradition -- requested by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon -- because he expected the men would soon be tried in Argentina.

In a largely symbolic move, both houses of the National Congress voted last month to repeal the two laws that prevent prosecutions for human rights violations committed during the years of the military dictatorship -- the "end point" and "due obedience" laws.

But the Supreme Court has the final say in the matter.

Kirchner has vowed the men will be prosecuted in Argentina. Monday's events seemed to be part of a tug of war between Kirchner's government -- which took power in May -- and a judicial establishment where many judges remain loyal to Kirchner's rival, former President Carlos Menem.

For human rights groups here, even one more day of freedom for the military men implicated in the deaths of between 9,000 and 30,000 people was too much to bear.

"We want the military men to stay in custody," said Adriana Calvo, director of an association of victims of the dictatorship. "The country and the whole world know that we have 40 military assassins, torturers and rapists in prison who could go free today. Argentina will once again be humiliated before the world."

Among those celebrating Monday were the supporters of Antonio Bussi, a former general who was placed in custody shortly after winning election as mayor of Tucuman, a provincial capital. His defeated his rival -- the son of a provincial senator who was "disappeared" in 1976 -- by just 17 votes.

"The news fills us with joy for what it means to the inhabitants of the city and for the tranquillity it brings to our family," said Congressman Ricardo Bussi, Antonio's son.

Once he is freed, the elder Bussi will be able to be inaugurated as mayor.

According to published reports here, Kirchner and his advisors expect the amnesty laws to be overturned "before the end of the year."

About 1,800 former officers and soldiers could then face trial on a variety of human rights charges.

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