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Argentine Court Voids Amnesty in 'Dirty War'

Ruling opens way for prosecution of officials implicated in the brutal anti-dissident campaign.

June 15, 2005|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — Argentina's Supreme Court overturned two amnesty laws Tuesday that had prevented the prosecution of hundreds of military officers, soldiers and police linked to this country's "dirty war," in which tens of thousands of people may have been slain.

The ruling allows the reinstatement of hundreds of prosecutions and civil lawsuits that had been dropped nearly two decades ago, legal experts and government officials said. Government sources and human rights activists said new charges naming as many as 300 defendants -- the majority retired military and police officers -- could be filed in the coming weeks.

In a 7-1 decision, the high court declared unconstitutional two laws that allowed all but a handful of those charged with killing or "disappearing" between 10,000 and 30,000 people to escape prosecution.

President Nestor Kirchner, who helped make the ruling possible recently by replacing several members of the Supreme Court, said the judges "have given our country a ruling that renews our faith in the system of justice."

"They have declared unconstitutional [laws] that filled us with shame," Kirchner said during a visit to the city of Cordoba.

Until recently, the court had been dominated by allies of former President Carlos Menem, who had bowed to military pressure to keep the amnesty laws in place. In the late 1980s, Argentine military officers mutinied twice to stop efforts to prosecute them for their alleged crimes. Most of the officers who oversaw the operations of the dirty war have since retired.

Hours before the judgment was delivered, Defense Minister Jose Pampuro told reporters that some current members of the armed forces were apprehensive about the possibility of being prosecuted. "Of course, there is some worry, but it's only among a few men and not in all members of the armed forces," he said.

After the ruling was announced, armed forces chief Gen. Roberto Bendini welcomed the decision. "Those accused will be prosecuted and found guilty -- or not guilty," he said.

Although many of the top officers in the then-ruling junta were prosecuted and convicted in the mid-1980s, before the amnesty laws were approved, some now face charges filed a few years ago, as both sides awaited the Supreme Court ruling on whether the legislation was valid.

Former junta members Adm. Emilio Massera and Gen. Jorge Videla could face new trials, along with mid-ranking officers such as Navy Capt. Alfredo Astiz, known here as the Blond Angel of Death. He is charged in the kidnapping of several members of a mothers group that pressed the government to reveal the fate of missing loved ones.

Human rights groups applauded Tuesday's ruling.

"The crimes of the dirty war are far too serious to be amnestied and forgotten," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. "The era of sweetheart deals for the military, extracted at gunpoint from democratic leaders, is over."

No one knows for certain how many people were killed in Argentina's dirty war against leftist militants, dissidents, intellectuals and bystanders in the years following the 1976 military coup.

Estela Carlotto, president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group with children and grandchildren who were disappeared, or abducted and never seen again, said the verdict was the culmination of a long struggle that began during the seven-year dictatorship, when a small group of parents marched in central Buenos Aires, demanding to know their loved ones' fates.

"The laws created an impunity that has afflicted us for years," Carlotto said. "We have had to live with these thieves and assassins walking freely among us."

Several members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, wearing the white head scarves that became a symbol of their struggle to find loved ones, embraced and wept outside the Supreme Court. Several approached court officials, saying they wanted to personally thank the justices.

Tuesday's ruling was made in the case of Jose Poblete and Gertrudis Hlaczik, married activists who disappeared in Buenos Aires in November 1978, along with their 8-month-old daughter, Claudia. The case was in many ways typical of the cruelties and absurdities of the dirty war. Poblete and Hlaczik were members of a "Christian liberation" group. Poblete was disabled.

Along with their infant daughter, they were taken into custody by a group of officers from the Buenos Aires provincial police, according to the human rights group Never Again.

Witnesses said the couple were brutally tortured before being killed. Their bodies have never been found. Poblete's wheelchair was tossed in a police parking lot, according to witnesses cited by Never Again.

Retired police officials Julio Simon and Cerefino Landa were later accused in the couple's disappearance. In 1990, human rights activists found Claudia living with Landa and his wife, who had raised her for 22 years as their daughter.

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