Argentina's 'Dirty War' Laundry May Get a Public Airing A Legal Loophole May Give the Victims of Pardoned Officers Their Day in Court

By Jack Epstein, | The Christian Science Monitor, December 4, 1997 | Go to article overview

Argentina's 'Dirty War' Laundry May Get a Public Airing A Legal Loophole May Give the Victims of Pardoned Officers Their Day in Court


Jack Epstein,, The Christian Science Monitor


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 Garzon 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 Garzon court. …

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