Tue, Jul 22, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Mass graves giving up the secrets of Argentina's past

REUTERS , CORDOBA, ARGENTINA

Members of the Argentine Forensic Anthropologists Team work on the biggest dictatorship-era mass grave discovered so far, where around 40 suspected victims of the 1976-1983 military junta were buried in a local cemetery in Cordoba, 800km northwest of Buenos Aires.

PHOTO: REUTERS

In a dank mortuary, forensic anthropologist Dario Olmo pores over a carefully laid-out skeleton, piecing together the horrors of Argentina's recent past bone by bone.

Beside ribs stained brown with mud and age sits a tangle of stocking and nylon cord -- the sinister key to the man's fate at the hands of the brutal 1976-83 military dictatorship.

"This man had something around his neck that strangled him. The savagery is inexplicable," said Olmo, striving to identify dozens of the junta's victims recovered from a secret mass grave in Cordoba, 800km northwest of Buenos Aires -- the biggest found to date.

As the Argentine Forensic Anthropologists Team unearths the truth two decades after military rule collapsed, those responsible for the cruelty may now finally face justice.

Long shielded by Argentine amnesty laws, hundreds of ageing former military officers could lose their immunity and face possible extradition to stand trial abroad for the kidnapping, torture and murder of 10,000 to 30,000 people -- mostly suspected leftists -- who "disappeared" under the junta.

New left-leaning President Nestor Kirchner, himself persecuted as a student, wants to see those who he says "decimated" his generation held accountable.

"Reconciliation cannot arise from silence or complicity," he warned military top brass this month. "We must separate the wheat from the chaff, each taking responsibility for his actions."

A top Foreign Ministry source said Kirchner is seeking to annul a decree that bans extradition of ex-military accused of rights abuses -- and so pave the way for them to be tried abroad.

The initiative follows Mexico's recent extradition of former Argentine navy officer Ricardo Cavallo to Spain to face genocide and terrorism charges in what was hailed as a watershed for human rights.

Crusading Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who has sought the extradition of dozens of former Argentine officials, is now trying to freeze the assets of 96 ex-soldiers and police officers he accuses of dictatorship-era crimes.

Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's escape from extradition for rights crimes stemming from his own iron-fisted 1973-90 rule has not deterred relatives of Argentina's disappeared in their campaign to bring the guilty to justice.

"Kirchner's initiative is very welcome; it is a breath of fresh air," said Aida Sarti of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which groups parents whose children disappeared. "But we want the amnesty laws annulled too so the [accused] can be put on trial here."

In recent months courts have declared the so-called 1987 Full Stop and Due Obedience laws unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court is expected to take up the issue.

Judges convicted a number of high-ranking military officials after the dictatorship fell.

Coup leader Jorge Videla lives under house arrest, while ex-navy head Emilio Eduardo Massera, who ran an infamous torture center, is ailing and bedridden. Former General Leopoldo Galtieri, who led Argentina into the disastrous Falklands War, died this year.

But many officers were later pardoned, and the frustration of families who want to know what really happened is palpable. They still hold out hope of recovering a body to mourn.

Protesters this month waved banners reading "Justice and punishment for the genocidal" at a soccer match to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Argentina's 1978 World Cup win.

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