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For Argentine politicians, timing of verdict in junta trial is key

By Jimmy BurnsSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 19, 1985



Buenos Aires

The verdict in the historic trial of Argentina's former military rulers is expected to come in a highly-charged political atmosphere. Key parliamentary elections are scheduled for Nov. 3, around the time when a verdict is expected. The polls, which will fill half the seats in the Argentine National Congress, are seen as the first public measure of the popularity of President Ra'ul Alfons'in's government. His party holds only a four-seat majority in Congress -- only 129 out of 254 seats.

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These political concerns are seen as a backdrop to the trial of nine military rulers charged with widespread human-rights violations. A major phase of the trial ended Aug. 14, when a civilian court-martial board heard testimony from the last of more than 1,000 witnesses.

After a three-week recess, prosecution and defense will be given a month to summarize their cases.

Those seeking election have mixed feelings as to which should come first, elections or verdict. They are torn between wanting to use condemnation of the juntas as ammunition in their campaigns and wanting elections to be behind them before they tackle the politically sensitive issues expected to arise in the trial's aftermath.

The most sensitive issue for those seeking office involves the officers who have not stood trial for their alleged role in the crimes. The nine junta leaders are charged with murder, torture, robbery, breaking and entering, and falsification of public documents.

During three successive military regimes from 1976 to 1982, some 8,000 Argentines ``disappeared.''

When the trial is over, President Alfons'in will have to decide what to with officers who followed the orders of the ruling juntas.

Alfons'in, himself a former human-rights lawyer, fought his election campaign on a bold moral offensive against the former military rulers. Later he publicly endorsed a full-scale inquiry into human-rights violations -- a move without precedent in South American history.

The defense represents a widespread view within the Argentine legal profession that the trial has a strong political undercurrent that has been running against the juntas from the first day. ``Alfons'in would not have ordered the trial in the first place if he did not feel that judgment of the juntas was a political necessity,'' commented one local lawyer.

But as the trial enters its final stages, critics of the government say that contradictions in Alfons'in's human-rights policy are surfacing.

Luis Zamora, a prominent human-rights activist and leader of the left-wing Movement Toward Socialism party, says that Alfons'in has effectively put a brake on the human-rights issue by restricting the scope of the trial.

``There are hundreds of other middle- and junior-ranking officers who executed the orders and who therefore carry their share of the blame. But they are not being touched,'' Mr. Zamora commented.

In recent weeks Alfons'in has been visiting key military units and making public speeches in favor of a positive role for the military in the country's nascent democracy.

Government officials admit privately that the price they have to pay for a working relationship with the armed forces is a compromise on the human-rights issue. The country's current military chiefs have stated that if the judgment were extended beyond the former juntas, the cohesion of the armed forces as a professional force would be jeopardized.

Meanwhile, there is a widespread belief that all nine of the actual defendants will be found guilty of some of the charges.

``I am sure that I have produced conclusive proof that the juntas are guilty. It is now up to the judges to condemn them,'' said State Prosecutor Julio Strassera last week.

The defendants in the trial are Gens. Jorge Videla, Roberto Viola, and Leopoldo Galtieri, three admirals, and three Air Force brigadiers. President Alfons'in ordered their court-martial shortly after his election in December 1983.

Many observers believe that at least the first three-man junta could face maximum sentences: 25 years to life imprisonment.