Argentina is poised to reopen inquiry into crimes committed by military officers during the 1976-83 dictatorship - a move being hailed by some as crucial to healing the country's dark past, but criticized by others as divisive and potentially destabilizing.
Both fury and elation greeted a judge's decision last week to strike down two amnesty laws protecting junior and mid-level officers for crimes committed during the so-called dirty war, in which thousands of leftists or suspected leftists were arrested or kidnapped, then raped, tortured, and murdered.
"The decision is very important because it is the first time that an Argentine court has declared that crimes against humanity are not subject to a statute of limitations, nor to any kind of amnesty," says Horacio Verbitsky, president of the Center for Social and Legal Studies (CELS), a human rights group.
But the center-right daily La Nacion describes the ruling - which is expected to be appealed, a process that could take months - as a "lamentable retreat" likely to dig up old wounds. And a former president, Raul Alfonsin, warned: "It is always dangerous to put the clocks back 20 years in any nation."
A regional dilemma
The mixed reactions reflect debates in several Latin American countries over whether to revisit the authoritarian past and prosecute those responsible for deaths and disappearances.
In Chile, efforts to put former dictator Augusto Pinochet on trial have dragged on since 1998. Uruguayans decided in a plebiscite not to try former military leaders on charges related to abuses, though a "Commission for Peace" was recently formed, marking the first official government effort to investigate crimes under the junta. Peru is setting up a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission.
The Argentine federal court's decision in theory clears the way for the trial and imprisonment of at least 1,200 former members of Argentina's police forces and military.
Unsurprisingly, the judgment drew a sharp rebuke from Argentina's military, which has seized power several times in the past and has never drifted far from politics. Defense minister Horacio Juanarena, sworn into office just last Monday, said "it would not be healthy" to annul the amnesty laws. And army chief General Ricardo Brinzoni, who stands accused of personal involvement in a massacre of 24 people in 1978, described it as "a retrograde move."
Though reluctant to discuss it in public, many ordinary Argentines privately remain dubious about the court's decision. "A strong majority believe the amnesty laws were a wise way to confine that period to the past," says Enrique Zuleta, a political analyst and director of IBOPE, a political polling firm. "At that time, it was absolutely impossible to prosecute every officer."
The current Argentine administration, wary of provoking resentments among those who could face prosecution, is trying to paper over the cracks the ruling has exposed. President Fernando de la Rua, who himself voted in favor of the two amnesty laws while a senator in 1987, has called for consensus to help end a 32-month recession.
Senior ministers would love for the whole issue to go away. Congressional elections are scheduled for October, and de la Rua, who leads a fragile center-left coalition, is already taking flak for his handling of the economy and for a series of political corruption scandals that have marred his tenure.
Political analysts note that many moderate Argentines had welcomed the bloodless 1976 coup that brought the military to power. When the military took over, Argentina was reeling from years of economic chaos and the erosion of public order that occurred under a succession of incompetent governments in the 1970s. At the time, political kidnappings, violent strikes and bombings had become commonplace.
The military government cracked down on leftist guerrillas and their sympathizers, but its actions quickly got out of hand. Official estimates put the number killed during the regime at 10,000, but human rights campaigners say the total is three times greater.
The junta collapsed in 1983 after a disastrous attempt to seize the Falkland Islands from Britain ended in military defeat. Senior officers were imprisoned after a 1984 trial but were later pardoned by then-president Carlos Menem. Most other officers were protected from prosecution by the two amnesty laws, which set a time limit on legal action and permitted junior officers to claim they were 'following orders.'
The laws were introduced at a time when middle-ranking officers, fearful of prosecution, had led uprisings against Argentina's then-fledgling democracy.
For the next 15 years, Argentines resisted a thorough reckoning with their past. A 1986 commission investigating the "disappeared" documented 9,000 cases, but the report's conclusions were quickly swept aside as Argentines sought to unify behind a democratic government. Successive Argentine governments have blocked calls for a truth and reconciliation commission.
Military shield buckles
But for the past few years, a campaign to overturn the amnesty laws has been building, spurred by outrage that hundreds who committed excesses remain at liberty. Campaigners such as CELS and The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have brought increasing pressure on authorities to prosecute former military personnel and to disclose what happened to the "disappeared."Focusing on cases involving the abduction of children, which are not covered by the blanket amnesty laws, they have put 11 former military leaders in jail, or under house arrest, for abducting the children of those who died under torture.
Tuesday's ruling applies to just one case, a 1978 double murder-kidnapping involving 11 former officers, two of whom are being held in custody, but legal experts here say it could set a precedent that will be difficult for the courts to ignore after federal judge Gabriel Cavallo ruled the immunity laws "unconstitutional and invalid."
"This judgment is not part of a political game," says Mr. Zuleta. "Cavallo is a highly respected judge and an independent man. His argument seems strong, coherent and consistent on an international level."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor