Argentine generals mobilize as return of civilian rule nears

An increasingly weak and demoralized Argentine military is trying desperately to tidy things up a bit before turning power back to the civilians. The generals worry that once they return to the barracks following the presidential election Oct. 30:

* There could be a new wave of leftist terrorism like that which surged over Argentina in the early 1970s and led the military to seize power in 1976.

* They could be held accountable for all sorts of crimes, including the disappearances of thousands of Argentines - men, women, and children - during the years after seizing power.

For these reasons the military has issued two new laws. One - which the military calls an anti-terrorist measure - allows the police to: break into homes without search warrants; hold suspects without telling the judiciary what they are up to; open mail, and tap telephones.

The other grants the military and their civilian auxiliaries, such as right-wing paramilitary squads, a pardon for all criminal and punishable activities from mid-May 1973, to mid-June 1982, ''regardless of their nature.''

Reaction to both laws has been swift - and largely negative. For a wide array of Argentines - who have come to loathe the military, largely because of unbridled military and police brutality in the late 1970s - the two measures seem the height of arrogance.

Novelist Ernesto Sabato called the ''self-amnesty'' measure a ''monstrosity.'' Former President and retired Gen. Alejandro Agustin Lanusse said laconically, ''I do not agree with (the amnesty).''

Reaction to the anti-terrorism law has been equally adverse. Intransigent Party politician Miguel Monserrat said: ''There is really no limit to this government's capacity for nonsense.''

German Lopez of the Radical Party says the law is ''pulling the country's leg.''

Many Argentines expect that both measures will be repealed when the newly elected congress meets, which may occur before the end of the year.

But this week two trial judges declared the amnesty law ''absolutely null and void.'' They refused to enforce the law in two kidnapping cases, writing that the law was approved by a ''de facto regime which lacks the legal power'' to enact the law.

The legal and political wrangle over the two new laws has shoved this country's presidential election campaign off the front pages. Whether it helps Peronist candidate Italo Argentino Luder or Radical candidate Raul Alfonsin, the two front-runners in a field of 13, is unclear.

The Buenos Aires Herald, this city's English-language daily, which managed despite censorship to speak out the most forcefully against the military in the '70s, severely criticized the new military laws.

''The problem in Argentina is not that police and the other security forces have too little power to use against genuine subversives - who include, by definition, military plotters against the constitutional order as well as civilians - but too much. . . .''

There is, however, reluctance among some politicians on moving too quickly against the military. They know the military is capable of seizing power again.

And even if they want to try some military leaders in court for crimes against those who disappeared, evidence of guilt will be hard to come by. Under Argentine law, there must be a corpse to prove malfeasance. There are no bodies of the disappeared.

Several mass graves have been found in Buenos Aires suburbs recently - the latest just this week - but it will not be easy to point a finger of responsibility at specific members of military or paramilitary forces.

There are other reasons, too, for public hostility toward the nation's military leaders.

Hours after the amnesty law was issued, the military commission appointed to study the conduct of last year's war with Britain over the Falkland Islands handed in its report to the ruling military junta.

The junta then promptly announced the report would not be made public anytime soon. ''Another coverup,'' crowed speakers at political forums.

Enough of the report has leaked out, however, to indicate that the commission members put the onus of blame for Argentina's defeat squarely on the shoulders of the military junta then in power - not today's leaders. The report urged their court martialing.

None of the wartime junta is now in government nor on active duty.

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