The aggressive, uncompromising approach of the Argentine human rights movement, considered so courageous during the times of authoritarian military rule, is proving something of a liability under democracy. Public support for human rights groups is being jeopardized, say observers, because of the movement's ardent criticism of the trial and convictions late last year of former military leaders for human rights violations in their so-called ``dirty war'' against alleged leftists.
Much of the rest of the world regarded the trial as an unprecedented success for Argentina's new democracy, installed in 1983.
The December convictions of five former military rulers, Argentine human rights activists admit, is more than they thought possible when they first spoke out for justice in the cases of the desaparecidos -- suspected political dissidents who disappeared, usually at the hands of the military.
But the eight groups comprising the movement here disapprove of the acquittal of four other military leaders in the trial. They also are critical of what they see as the government's lack of vigor in pursuing trials for hundreds of other military officers believed responsible for the disappearances of at least 9,000 persons during the 1970s.
Further, these groups are critical of legislation successfully backed by President Ra'ul Alfons'in last year making legal distinctions between those who gave orders and those who followed orders in the military's ``dirty war.'' That distinction, these groups say, is likely to be used to limit prosecut for the ``dirty war'' to the highest command. And so, they believe many reponsible for the disappearances might never be brought to trial.
The most militant of the groups, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, has even branched out into political and economic criticism of the current government.
``You can only understand the absurd complaints and [outraged] attitude [of the human rights movement] because of the pain they feel. And we have much admiration for their heroic behavior during the dictatorship,'' says Ernesto Sabato, the respected Argentine novelist who chaired the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons.
But, he says, ``They run the risk of losing sympathy if they continue their criticism.''
Mr. Sabato's government-appointed commission did the research that formed the basis for cases against the military in the trial last year. The monumental task he had in preparing a case against former military rulers is ironically highlighted by criticism his group received both from the human rights groups as well as from the military and its sympathizers.
The human rights movement is largely composed of parents of victims or victims themselves of the ``dirty war.'' The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers of victims who carry white kerchiefs embroidered with the dates their children disappeared, have become an international symbol of the Argentine human rights movement. They hold regular silent vigils at the Plaza de Mayo outside the Casa Rosada (the presidential offices) in defiance of the military during the 1970s, and continue to do so to press the government for answers regarding the fate of the disappeared.
``The trial is not enough. The sentence is not enough. This is not real justice. There were 2,500 militarists involved and we got judgement [life sentences] for only two,'' says Hebe de Bonafini, founder of the Mothers. One other former military leader received a sentence of 4 1/2 years, another received 8 years, and a third received 17 years. Mrs. de Bonafini and various human rights groups claim as many as 30,000 Argentines disappeared, a number the government has not substantiated.
Julio Strassera, the chief prosecutor in the cases against the generals last year, agrees that it is important for the movement to maintain its credibility among Argentines. The human rights groups' credibility is a key factor in maintaining an environment Mr. Strassera hopes will encourage witnesses to come forward in further prosecutions. He says it is essential for the human rights movement to continue its work, which has provided the foundation for his cases against the military. He says revenge should not be the motivation because ``revenge is an emotion and it is not juridical.''