Argentina takes step toward cleaning up 'Dirty War'

The Supreme Court is due to consider reversing amnesty for ex-military men.

The former Navy officer's dashing white dress suit is long gone. But Alfredo Astiz retains enough of his youthful good looks for Argentines to instantly recognize him as he was led from a courtroom in handcuffs last Friday.

Justice finally looks to be catching up with Mr. Astiz. Twenty years after Argentina's return to democracy, Astiz remains for many the public face of Argentina's military death squads, which human rights groups say were responsible for the disappearance of up to 30,000 people during the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

For years, Astiz and other former officers accused of human rights abuses have been protected by a series of amnesty laws passed in the face of pressure from the military in the years following the return to democracy in 1983.

But all that changed Friday when Argentina's new president, Nestor Kirchner, annulled a decree forbidding extradition of former military men to stand trial abroad for crimes committed in Argentina. Many here hope that Mr. Kirchner's move is just the first step in rolling back all the legislation that has protected the former officers, including amnesty from trials in Argentine courts.

Among the crimes Astiz is accused of is the disappearance of three of the founding members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group formed during military rule to pressure the Army for information about their missing loved ones.

France has wanted to extradite Astiz since 1990 when a French court sentenced him in absentia to life in prison for his role in the disappearance of two French nuns in Argentina. Sweden also wants him in connection with the 1977 killing of Swedish teenager. Since Friday's ruling, he has not responded publicly.

Since the president's move, more than 40 other former officers have been arrested along with Astiz. Spain has issued extradition warrants for men who committed crimes against Spanish nationals. Among those being held is former dictator Jorge Vidal.

Kirchner, who was detained briefly during military rule, has actively identified himself with the "disappeared generation." One of his first acts upon taking power at the end of May was to purge the military of generals whose attitude he considered ambivalent toward the Army's role in the "Dirty War."

He told The Washington Post on his trip to the US last week that he was in favor of repealing the laws protecting the military from Argentine courts, though he does not have the power to repeal them himself.

Human rights groups welcomed the lifting of the extradition ban but still say there is a long way to go. "It is progress on the road to justice, truth, and the end of impunity," says Rosa Roisinblit, one of the leaders of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the successor to the original mothers' organization. "But I think there is still a long and winding road ahead."

The Supreme Court is due to consider the legality of the remaining amnesty laws after lower courts in 2001 ruled them unconstitutional in the light of the military threat that surrounded their enactment. The country's Congress says it, too, will debate the laws.

But despite the enormity of the crimes involved, others are uncertain of the wisdom of proceeding against the former officers.

Sharp lines were drawn in Argentine society during the "Dirty War" period, with many people supporting the military's battle against leftist insurgents, though they say the government went too far. Some fear dredging up the past will only bring back those bitter divides.

"The attempt to revive the polarization of our country which bled us to death in the 1970s is a grave error," wrote La Nación, one of the country's leading newspapers, in an editorial following the extradition repeal.

As well as those who would leave the past alone, there are those who defend the accused. They say the military was involved in a civil war with armed leftists in which both sides committed atrocities. They want to know what Kirchner intends for former leftist guerrillas who also benefit from current amnesty laws.

The task now for Kirchner, analysts say, is to finally account for the dark deeds from Argentina's recent past without reopening old divisions in Argentine society at a time when he is trying to pull the country out of its worst economic crisis ever.

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