Argentine court clears way for 'Dirty War' trials

Argentina's Supreme Court overturned two amnesty laws Tuesday that prevented the prosecution of hundreds of military officers, soldiers and police linked to the country's ''Dirty War'' in which tens of thousands of people were slain.

The ruling paves the way for the revival of hundreds of prosecutions and civil suits that had been dropped nearly two decades, 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 coming weeks.

In a 7-1 decision, the court declared unconstitutional two laws that allowed all but a few of those charged with killing or ''disappearing'' an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 people beginning in 1975 to escape prosecution.

President Nestor Kirchner, who helped to make the ruling possible by recently 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,'' he said.

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 mid-level and high-ranking military officers who oversaw the operations of the Dirty War have since retired.

Hours before the judgment was delivered, Defense Minister Josť Pampuro said some 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,'' he said.

Armed forces chief Gen. Roberto Bendini welcomed the court's decision. ''Those accused will be prosecuted and found guilty -- or not guilty,'' he said.

Although many of the top members of the junta were prosecuted, convicted and sentenced in the mid-1980s before the amnesty laws were approved, some now face charges filed a few years ago when both sides awaited the high court ruling on whether the legislation was valid.

Junta members Adm. Emilio Massera and Gen. Jorge Videla could face new trials, along with mid-ranking officers like former Navy Capt. Alfredo Astiz, known here as ''the Blond Angel.'' He is charged in the kidnapping of several members of a mothers' group -- Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo -- 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 Josť Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. ``The era of sweetheart deals for the military, extracted at gunpoint from democratic leaders, is over.''

No one knows for sure how many people were killed in Argentina's Dirty War against leftist militants, dissidents and intellectuals in the years after a 1975 military coup.

Estela Carlotto, president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women with ''disappeared'' children and grandchildren, said the verdict was the culmination of her decades-long struggle that began during the dictatorship when a small group of parents marched in Buenos Aires, demanding to know the fate of loved ones.

''The laws created an impunity which 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 headscarves that became a symbol of their struggle to find loved ones, embraced and wept outside the Supreme Court.

[Source: By Hector Tobar, The Miami Herald, Usa, 15Jun05]

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