Argentina, too, confronts its past

Last week, a former junta leader, Emilio Massera, was arrested on charges of kidnapping infants.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The investigations of a charismatic young judge in Spain have obliged two countries in Latin America to confront their violent past - but in very different ways.

Judge Baltasar Garzn's efforts to extradite Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet from Britain have received worldwide attention in recent weeks. This week a new chapter of the story was opened when Britain ruled that the former dictator is not immune from prosecution on charges of killing Spanish citizens.

Different consequences

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The extradition process has been bitterly divisive in Chile, where it has galvanized General Pinochet's supporters, given hope to his longtime accusers and opponents, and stimulated nationalist sentiments in the face of "foreign interference." Yet in Argentina, a less-publicized case, also sparked by a Judge Garzn pursuit, is playing itself out with distinctly different consequences.

Whereas Chile has been torn by debate and heated demonstrations, the mood in the Argentine capital is reflective. Last week, Argentines watched quietly as retired Adm. Emilio Massera was placed under house arrest in a case that echoes Pinochet's.

Garzn's interest in Admiral Massera involves the alleged murder of Spanish citizens. But Massera owes his current detention to charges involving Argentine victims. Garzn's case against Massera in Spain is not a central concern.

The Argentine courts are considering the legal points of the case, and the newspapers in Buenos Aires are providing sober, detailed coverage.

Argentina's path to judgment departs from Chile's. In the mid-1970s, Argentina, like Chile, experienced a military coup that overthrew an unstable civilian elected government. Massera, like Pinochet, was part of the initial junta. Pinochet emerged as dictator, but Massera remained part of a junta, where he served as second in command and prime ideologue.

'Disappearing' thousands

Both dictatorships consolidated their power through murdering and "disappearing" thousands of citizens, as well as foreign nationals.

Pinochet yielded his powers only gradually, eventually permitting presidential elections while granting himself lifetime immunity from prosecution and a political office for life.

The change in Argentina was more abrupt. The Argentines blamed their military rulers for the disastrous war in the Falklands in 1982, and they were obliged to resign in the face of overwhelming public opprobrium in 1983. In 1987, Massera was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the killings, along with a number of his counterparts.

But three years later, the civilian government of current President Carlos Menem, battered by barracks revolts by young officers, decided to ease his relations with the military by pardoning the middle- and senior-ranking officers convicted of murder and torture.

And there the matter seemed to end. But there were still some official crimes that could not be put to rest.

Massera and his men had allegedly made a practice of holding pregnant women in confinement until they gave birth, then killing them and giving their newborns, stripped of documented identity, to military families.

The parents of the disappeared mothers have continued to search for their grandchildren and, in a few cases, have reclaimed them. It is believed that between 400 and 500 children were lost in this manner, of whom 59 have been found.

Then, in 1995, one of Massera's officers made a public confession about his role in Massera's operations. Adolfo Scilingo, a former lieutenant, told an Argentine journalist that Massera had run a torture chamber beneath his offices in the Navy Mechanics School.

Proceedings in Spain

In Spain, Judge Garzn had already begun to investigate charges that Massera and others were involved in the killing of Spanish citizens. Then, in September 1997, Mr. Scilingo was attacked in Buenos Aires by four men.

Shortly afterward, Scilingo volunteered to go to Spain and cooperate with Garzn's prosecution. On Oct. 10, 1997, the Spanish court issued warrants for the arrest of Massera and 10 fellow officers, based on Scilingo's testimony.

Garzn moved decisively to establish his jurisdiction in the case. He gathered support ranging from the Buenos Aires public defender's office to the United Nations Committee on Torture.

The initial reaction of the Argentine government was to stonewall, denying Spanish jurisdiction and refusing to place Massera and the others under arrest.

Then the case began to move on an unexpected front. For several years Argentine Federal Judge Roberto Jos Marquevitch had been searching for the children of the disappeared. (Argentina, like Spain, operates under a system of civil law, in which an investigating judge performs the function of a district attorney.)

Among those he found was Javier Vildoza, the son of Cecilia Vias, a pregnant woman who was "disappeared" at the Mechanics School in 1977. Mr. Vildoza's identity was confirmed recently through DNA testing, and he is one of two now-grown children named in an Argentine case against Massera.

So far, Judge Marquevitch has successfully argued that the 1990 presidential pardon of Massera and his counterparts applied only to the crimes for which they were previously convicted - torture and murder. The pardon did not extend to the crime of kidnapping the infants of the victims.

Massera was placed under house arrest; President Menem has not resisted the case this time. But there are legal complications, among them an Argentine law that grants special humane provisions to prisoners over the age of 70 (which would apply to Massera). For the time being, though, Argentina's tentative, 15-year-old democratic institutions are operating on their own and consolidating a legal framework for the future.

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