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Argentina's 'disappeared:' Justice at last or reneging on amnesty?

In Argentina, and elsewhere in Latin America, victims of brutal dictatorships are finally getting their day in court. But by trying former officials who were given amnesty, are nations reopening old political wounds?

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Where prosecution lags

But other countries have not rushed to prosecute their aging military officials as a way of coming to terms with the past.

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In Brazil, a debate is emerging. Last year, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s justice minister suggested that Brazil’s amnesty, passed by the military dictatorship in 1979 and respected until today, should not be allowed to shield torturers. A truth commission on the status of approximately 140 people who disappeared during the dictatorship’s rule between 1964 and 1985 will be announced next month, and some see it as a first step toward prosecution. A case is also currently in front of the Brazilian Supreme Court to challenge the amnesty law.

In neighboring Uruguay, there is a social tug of war over the country’s 1986 amnesty law, passed one year after democracy returned. Exceptions to the law have allowed cases to advance since 2005 against several high-ranking officials, including the country’s first dictator, Juan María Bordaberry, who dissolved Uruguay’s Congress and became de facto president in 1973.

But the justice system is still barred from pursuing most criminal actions. The Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional last month, but the decision only has legal force in that case. Six days later, voters rejected a plebiscite to wipe the amnesty off the books, as they also did in 1989. The Supreme Court decision and the vote must now be reconciled.

Gonzalo Aguirre, a former Uruguayan senator who voted for Uruguay’s amnesty law and served as vice president for the conservative National Party from 1990 to 1995, expressed his opposition to repealing Uruguay’s amnesty law, a common sentiment throughout the region. “Governments have to confront real problems,” he said in an interview with the Monitor. “This is a problem from 35 years ago.”

‘We want to know’

According to some legal experts in Chile and Argentina, the prosecutions have violated constitutional prohibitions on ex post facto and retroactive laws.

Opponents to prosecutions in Brazil and Uruguay often cite these same arguments: The military was granted amnesty, and that promise cannot be revoked.
“From the substantive view, it’s not bad that these people are being prosecuted,” says José Sebastían Elías, a constitutional law professor at the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires. But he asks about the process under way in his country: “How many institutional manipulations are we willing to live with to reach substantive justice?”

The desire for justice and punishment, however, is compelling.

“We want to know what happened with our children, who gave the orders, who killed them and where is their final resting place,” says Marta Vasquez, the president of Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of women who began to protest against the dictatorship in 1977 for information on their missing children.

Ms. Vasquez’s daughter, Maria, was kidnapped with her son-in-law, César Lugones, in May 1976. She never saw her daughter again, and has received only fragmentary information about her final days.