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Argentina seeks justice for kidnapped children

A Spanish judge could file charges this week for a dictatorship's pastcrimes.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 1999


It's the kind of photo prominently displayed in any grandmother's home: a proud matriarch surrounded by 12 beaming grandchildren. But for Marta Ocampo de Vasquez, this portrait is a source of both great joy and constant sorrow.

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A grandson that Mrs. Vasquez has never seen is missing from the photo. She knows he is alive, and she knows he should be there amid the youthful exuberance orbiting grandma in her sensible black shoes.

Vasquez is one of dozens of Argentine grandmothers searching for what are referred to here simply as "the stolen children." An estimated 400 to 500 children were taken from young parents who were kidnapped and "disappeared" by authorities during Argentina's 1976-83 military dictatorship. They were adopted by politically acceptable parents - military, police, or other families connected to the regime.

These children, now young adults, are at the center of Argentina's struggle to come to terms with its past. It's an effort suffused with strong, conflicting emotions and legal claims - the search for the stolen children's identity, their right to know the truth of their origin, and a biological family's desire to establish kinship versus a child's preference to leave the past unprobed.

Identifying the grandchildren

As wrenching as the case of the stolen children is, recent events are giving grandmothers like Vasquez new hope. First, grandchildren continue to be identified: To date, 64 cases have been resolved, with more than 200 cases under active investigation. Human rights groups estimate that perhaps 200 more cases could be opened.

In addition, a Buenos Aires judge is investigating what he asserts was the dictatorship's systematic plan for taking the children and changing their identity. Earlier this year the case resulted in the arrest of a number of key former military leaders.

Internationally, investigations mirroring the Spanish case against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet offer the grandmothers a certain promise. In Spain, the same judge developing the Pinochet case, Baltasar Garzn, is expected to file as early as this week formal charges of terrorism and genocide against some 100 former Argentine military officials. The controversial Spanish judge is investigating 179 Argentines for "crimes against humanity" during the military dictatorship.

In Italy, a court soon will try former Argentine military leaders in absentia for the torture and death of eight Argentines of Italian descent, one of whom was the mother of a missing child. And the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo organization is working with State Department officials and American rights groups to get information that could help clear up more identities.

International 'interference'

Although some Argentines consider such international cases "interference" in their internal affairs, the grandmothers welcome the help because a number of the child cases involve foreign citizens or flight to other countries.