Human rights trial poses painful questions for Argentines. At issue is how far down the line responsibility for `dirty war' crimes lies

Argentine justice continues on its unprecedented course, as the second trial in a civilian court of those involved in the military's ``dirty war'' of the late 1970s draws to a close here. The outcome of the trial - expected within two weeks - has ramifications both for future relations between the civilian and military powers in Argentina and for other South American states that live or have lived under military dictatorships guilty of serious human rights abuses.

At issue is how far down the chain of command responsibility should be attributed for the crimes committed under the military dictatorship's campaign of repression from 1976 to 1979.

Last year, members of the military juntas that organized the campaign were prosecuted and sentenced, two of them to life imprisonment. The security forces have since called for an end to prosecutions, claiming that other participants were merely acting under orders. Human rights activists and those whose family members disappeared behind the doors of torture centers, however, are demanding the prosecution of all who played a part, whatever their rank.

In the current trial, Gen. Ram'on Camps - the head of the police force of Buenos Aires Province from 1976 to 1983, his deputy, and five subordinates are charged with more than 280 criminal offences, including murder, abduction, and torture.

The prosecutor has called for life imprisonment for the two police chiefs, and for sentences ranging from 18 to 25 years for subordinates. He also named additional policemen to be brought to trial and insisted that soldiers or police who were knowing accomplices of crimes committed, even if they only brought detainees to torture centers, were responsible for their actions and should be punished.

The dirty war began immediately following the military coup in 1976 and had the purported objective of stamping out left-wing guerrillas that had been active in the country. But tens of thousands of people were subsequently rounded up, the majority being simply political opponents of the regime. Most were abducted by paramilitary squads and taken to clandestine detention centers where torture was systematically carried out. Few ever appeared again.

According to evidence collected by the National Commission on the Disappeared, there are almost 9,000 outstanding cases of abducted persons who have not been found. An unoffical list drawn up by human rights organizations names more than a thousand members of the police and military who are alleged to be directly or indirectly implicated.

The government faces a difficult dilemma. If it allows the prosecutions to continue, it risks increasing hostility on the part of the security forces at a time when it particularly needs their support.

Domestically, President Ra'ul Alfons'in faces a growing economic crisis and an unprecendented wave of strike action from militant trade-union opposition. The government has announced its intent to act against strikers who affect essential services; this could require police action. Internationally, Mr. Alfons'in faces a crisis with Britain over fishing rights around the disputed Falkland (Malvinas) Islands in the South Atlantic. To take a strong stance in the dispute, he needs the armed forces behind him.

During the transition from military to democratic rule in 1983, the new government negotiated with the military on the question of prosecutions. ``A tacit agreement was worked out,'' to limit the extent of the trials, says Germ'an L'opez, Alfons'in's former defense minister.

The government has pursued a course that attempts to balance the need for justice with the need for national reconciliation. It resolved to put on trial top-level officers that planned the war and those of any rank who committed atrocities clearly proscribed by Argentine law. All others were to be exempted under the principle of ``due obedience.''

``We cannot lay all the blame on just one sector of society, when all of society has to bear part of the blame for what happened,'' says Horacio Jaunarena, the current defense minister.

Now the military, which feels that the ``tacit agreement'' is being betrayed, is increasing pressure on Alfons'in to put a stop to further trials.

But for human rights activists, and clearly for the state prosecutor, an important principle is being defended in the trials, namely that ``obedience to orders'' is not a sufficient defense for willing accomplices to human rights abuses.

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