Argentina ends one chapter, starts a new

Only King Solomon could have bettered the even-handedness of last week's verdict in the human rights trial of the Argentine juntas. This appeared to be the opinion of most Argentines when the Federal Appeals Court convicted five former military leaders of human rights abuses and acquitted four others earlier Dec. 9.

Other elements in Argentine society -- hardline sectors of the armed forces and human rights groups -- disapproved of the verdict, on the grounds that the sentences were too harsh or too light.

But statements by members of the ruling Radical party, the major opposition Peronist party, the Roman Catholic Church, journalists, jurists, and privately even sectors of the armed forces suggested that Argentine society as a whole saw the verdict as a key moment in its history from which the country's democracy should emerge strengthened.

``The verdict may have some defects but it should be considered an honorable example of Argentine democracy in a world that has never seen such a judgement,'' Ernesto Sabato said Dec. 11. Mr. Sabato is an Argentine novelist and the president of a commission whose report last year on over 8,000 cases of Argentine human rights violations led to the trial of the juntas.

Most political observers agree that the importance of the trial was that it was allowed to take place and that the junta members were judged and sentenced by civilian judges.

The generals, admirals, and brigadier generals belong to a sector of Argentine society which has enjoyed virtually unassailable status since a military coup in 1930 first entrenched the armed forces in politics. Throughout Latin America military coups have been commonplace. And the culprits are never judged by subsequent civilian governments.

``We in the armed forces have always been used to getting away with things. Now even the coup mongers are going to have to think long and hard before acting again. There can no longer be the same assurance of immunity,'' says Col. Luis Perlinguer, one of Argentina's leading military analysts.

The trial of the juntas climaxed two years after President Alfons'in ordered the court martial of the nine officers.

Two factors pushed the President to prosecute the former military leaders.

As a former attorney and human rights advocate, he was interested in a full-scale inquiry into human rights violations.

Argentine society was openly questioning the military's version of recent Argentine history.

The collapse of the military regime had been hastened by the end of the Falklands War in July 1982. Large sectors of Argentine society began to openly question the armed forces's version of history.

According to the armed forces, the 1976 coup led by General Jorge Videla and Admiral Massera, and Brigadier Orlando Agosti was a ``heroic crusade'' by the defenders of ``Western values'' against the terrorism of Marxist political groupings. The brutal methods used to stamp out political dissidence were justified as a necessary means to an end.

On Dec. 9, Mr. Leon Arlasnian, the president of the Federal Appeals Court judging the juntas, accepted the military's version which stated that when the coup took place Argentina was being ``terrorized'' by a revolutionary war.

But Mr. Arlasnian ruled that the methods used by the military -- breaking and entering, illegal detention, torture, and murder both of terrorists and innocent victims -- went beyond the limits of a civilized society and was the work of professional soldiers acting like common criminals.

``This tribunal cannot find one single rule or excuse which would pardon the kind of crimes which have been tried,'' Arlasnian said.

Since the trial began on April 22, over 1,000 witnesses have appeared in court. The account of these witnesses, woven into a tapestry of horror by chief state prosecutor Mr. Julio Strassera, initially left much of the public shocked, and sectors of the armed forces angry.

Just before the final verdict was broadcast live over nationwide television, Alfons'in lifted the state of seige declared in mid-October in reponse to a wave of terrorist bombings and an alleged conspiracy linked to the trial. The end of the trial was widely interpreted as a sign that Alfons'in felt sufficiently reassured that the passage of time has defused emotions over the humann rights issue. And the political risks in sentencing the juntas have diminished.

Prior to the verdict, opinion polls showed that while a majority of Argentines expected at least Videla to be condemned, they were also more concerned with the success of the government's anti-inflation drive than with the human rights issue. The judges claim they acted with fairness by declaring some of the prosecution's evidence as ``insufficient'' and by finding only some of the accused guilty, on the basis that the bulk of human rights violations were committed in the early years of the military reg ime.

Earlier the defense counsels argued that the trial proceedings had been staged as a political ``show trial'' by the government and that all nine accused had been prejudged without any legal basis.

The government's relations with the armed forces, tense for most of the last two year, may now improve, political analysts say. But the extent to which this relationship improves will depend largely on the government's capacity to resolve the next and potentially conflictive chapter in Argentina's ongoing human rights saga.

The court's verdict leaves open further legal action against the more than 300 junior- and middle-ranking officers who carried out the junta's orders. The options now being considered by the government include parliamentary legislation confirming that the main blame for human rights violations should be confined largely to those condemned on or an eventual Presidential pardon.

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