Fri, Aug 15, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Argentina takes steps to start human rights trials

THE GUARDIAN , BUENOS AIRES

Argentina took a new step towards resuming trials against human rights abusers in the 1976 to 1983 military junta Wednesday, when the lower house voted to overturn two amnesty laws which ended prosecutions 16 years ago.

Thousands of demonstrators listened to the proceedings via loudspeakers set up outside Congress, carrying banners reading "An End to Impunity" and "No to Genocide."

"It is a glorious day," said Mario Villani, a nuclear scientist and one of the few survivors of the Esma death camp, a naval base in the capital, Buenos Aires, where about 5,000 people "disappeared."

By a show of hands, the 186 members present in the lower House of Deputies supported the overturning of the two laws and sent the measure to the Senate for final congressional debate. The vote was unanimous.

Twenty thousand people, mostly young workers and leftwing students, vanished during the dictatorship, after being abducted and taken to secret detention camps throughout Argentina.

In most cases their bodies remain missing, as the military's preferred method of disposal was to throw them, alive, from planes into the South Atlantic.

The dictatorship collapsed after its defeat by a British military taskforce in the 1982 Falklands war. The junta's leaders, including General Leopoldo Galtieri, were tried shortly afterwards, ending in convictions in 1985.

But an attempt to try lower-ranking officers, including death camp commanders, was blocked by two amnesty laws passed by Congress in 1986 and 1987, following the military's threat of a coup.

"This is how peace is built," said legislator Elisa Carrio of the centrist ARI party, during the debate before the unanimous approval of repealing the amnesty laws. "Without truth and justice, there can be no peace."

The lower house vote, although an important symbolic step, followed another bold step by Argentina's new president, Nestor Kirchner, who a few hours before decided to ratify the 1968 UN war crimes convention, which implied that the country had to revoke its amnesty laws.

Kirchner, who was arrested by the military as a student and became the first Argentinian president to oppose amnesty laws in two decades of democracy, has already annulled a decree that blocked the extradition of military officers accused of human rights crimes.

The expected repeal by the senate next week follows the arrest last month of 45 former officers on an extradition request from the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who unsuccessfully sought the extradition of the former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet from London five years ago.

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