Argentina's 'Dirty War' Laundry May Get a Public Airing

A legal loophole may give the victims of pardoned officers their day in court

Just when Argentina's "dirty war" seemed to be fading into the past, a human rights lawyer has found a legal loophole to bring pardoned military officers to trial.

Last month, Alberto Pedroncini filed a lawsuit on behalf of the relatives of 13 people who "disappeared" during the seven-year struggle. The suit charges five generals and two admirals with murdering the disappeared, and accuses several government officials of destroying or withholding crucial evidence regarding the cases.

By official count, some 9,000 people disappeared during the 1976 to 1983 "dirty war" by military dictatorship's against leftists and political dissidents.

Human rights groups claim there were as many as 30,000 victims. In 1990, President Carlos Menem pardoned all middle- and senior-ranking officers convicted of torture, assassinations, and disappearances "to close a sad and black period of national history."

Mr. Pedroncini, however, says the pardons are illegal in the case of the disappearances. Under Argentine law, he argues, kidnapping is a continuing offense since the victims have never been found. If a court accepts his argument, the five generals and two admirals could face life sentences.

Legal challenges

The suit, Argentina's first legal challenge to the pardons, follows new court proceedings in Spain and Italy to bring former Argentine military officers to justice for past human rights abuses. A French court has already sentenced a former Argentine Navy officer in absentia to life imprisonment for his involvement in the killings of two French nuns.

"There have been many developments regarding the universal jurisdiction of crimes against humanity," Pedroncini said in a recent interview at his downtown office.

He says, "With the Italian and Spanish investigations and the war crime trials over Bosnia and Rwanda, the time is right for the lawsuit."

But some argue that the pardoned haven't gotten off scot-free.

"Argentina has become a prison for these people," says Horacio Verbitsky, a prominent journalist who has written extensively about the dirty war.

"They can't even go to Punta del Este [a popular Uruguayan beach resort] for the weekend."

That's because a Spanish court has issued international arrest warrants for former President Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri and 10 other high-ranking Argentine officers. Spanish law allows the prosecution of genocide no matter where it is committed and regardless of the nationality of those accused.

General Galtieri is said to be responsible for the killing of four members of a Spanish family in 1976 in Rosario, Argentina.

But even before the warrants, former dictators like Galtieri and Jorge Videla were recluses fearful of attacks. "I have the option of staying in my house or running the risk of having people yell or even hit me," Mr. Videla told two American reporters in 1995.

His caution is warranted.

Attacking the attackers

Last year, Jorge Berges, a former police doctor convicted of torturing prisoners, was shot and seriously wounded near his home.

In September, former Navy officer Adolfo Scilingo had his face slashed by unknown assailants on a Buenos Aires street. Mr. Scilingo is well-known for breaking the military's pact of silence about dirty war abuses. In 1995, he publicly described how the Navy drugged and hurled some 2,000 political prisoners to their deaths from airplanes.

"These incidents are the fallout of Argentina's failure to come to terms with its past," says James Cavallaro, the Brazil director of Human Rights Watch/Americas.

Spain steps in

And if Argentines are unwilling to come to terms with its past, Spain is willing to do it for them.

For the past 18 months, Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzn has investigated the torture and disappearance of 600 Spanish citizens in Argentina.

"When 30,000 people have been tortured and massacred, one can't just say it's all over and done with," Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato recently told the Garzn court.

To date, Judge Garzn has not only issued the arrest warrants but has also charged 110 former Argentine military and police officers with the deaths of Spanish citizens. He has asked Swiss federal prosecutors to investigate some 600 financial institutions in that country for assets belonging to the accused former officers. In July, Switzerland agreed to freeze the accounts of four people on the list.

President Menem has called Garzn's decisions an intrusion into his nation's internal affairs and has refused to extradite Galtieri or anyone else.

"Garzn is a foreign judge who has no jurisdiction in Argentina," says Alicia Pierini, the government's secretary for human rights. "He is listening to the same people, the same testimonies. There is nothing new."

In fact, the Menem administration insists that it would be difficult for anything new to come out, since the last military ruler - Gen. Reynaldo Bignone - ordered the burning of all documents regarding the disappeared shortly after democracy was restored in 1983.

Most human rights groups disagree.

"There are an important number of archives in the hands of the state, whose access is restricted, and in some cases, forbidden," said a recent document by the Washington-based Center for Justice and International Law.

However, Felipe Noguera, a Buenos Aires-based political consultant, concedes that many Argentines don't want to "push the issue" for fear of provoking the military and jeopardizing Argentina's fledgling democracy and recent economic gains.

In the meantime, human rights activists are upbeat about the recent lawsuit challenging the pardons.

"It's a bold step with a lot of legal basis," says Martin Abreg, a lawyer for the Buenos Aires-based Center for Legal and Social Studies. He adds, "The military will try to squelch it, but they have lost a lot of power. A trial is very possible."

Breaking code of silence

Human rights lawyer Pedroncini concedes that the odds are slim that any pardoned officers will wind up in jail.

Yet he is hopeful that a trial, at the least, will force the military to break its code of silence about what happened to the disappeared.

To date, Scilingo is the only former officer to discuss his participation in the military's systematic extermination of political dissidents.

"The conscience of a society is at stake here," Pedroncini says. "Many young people don't want to inherit a society that is indifferent to state-sponsored terrorism."

Recent Efforts to Clean Up After 'Dirty War'

Many Argentines want to forget their government's "dirty war" against leftist political dissidents from 1976 to 1983, but recent events are making it difficult:

* In May, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a prominent human rights group that has campaigned for 20 years on behalf of the disappeared, asked the Vatican to prosecute Pio Laghi, the cardinal in charge of the church's worldwide education. The Mothers claim Cardinal Laghi, a former papal envoy to Argentina, had firsthand knowledge of atrocities and collaborated closely with the former military junta.

* In June, a television show reenacted the interrogation of a former editor of a business magazine, who disappeared in 1977. The America 2 network said the program was based on an official transcript obtained from unnamed sources. The news fueled hopes that more records of those who disappeared still exist. America 2 claims to have similar information on 200 others.

* In August, the government announced it would issue $3 billion in bonds next year to compensate relatives of the disappeared. Under a 1994 law, families of victims have until 2000 to apply for $220,000 each. Some 8,000 people have applied so far.

* On Oct. 10, Adolfo Scilingo, who went to Spain voluntarily to testify, was jailed on charges of genocide and terrorism after he admitted hurling 30 prisoners from airplanes.

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