- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

BUENOS AIRES — Argentina’s Senate yesterday overturned two amnesty laws dating to the 1980s that ended trials for human rights abuses committed during the country’s military dictatorship.

Human rights activists and relatives of the disappeared broke into raucous applause when it was announced that senators voted 43-7, with one abstention, to scrap the laws. Twenty-one lawmakers were absent. The lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, passed the proposal last week.

The final congressional approval marked a victory for human rights groups who were pressing for a national re-examination of the 1976-83 dictatorship.

President Nestor Kirchner, who has given human rights new prominence during his weeks in power, is expected to sign the bill. Observers say, however, that the Supreme Court likely will have the final decision on the laws.

Mr. Kirchner’s effort, now endorsed by both houses of Congress, shatters a long-held standard of forgive and forget.

About 9,000 people disappeared during the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

In recent weeks, 40 military officers and one civilian who participated in Argentina’s “Dirty War” against opponents of the military junta have been arrested. Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon wants them extradited on charges of genocide, terrorism and torture of Spanish citizens.

The arrests came as a result of a decree Mr. Kirchner signed that allowed for the extradition of Argentine citizens responsible for crimes during the dictatorship.

The detentions were unthinkable a few months ago, when Argentina’s dark past seemed irretrievably buried under two sweeping amnesty laws and a host of presidential pardons. But the political winds have turned 180 degrees.

“There’s a fresh breeze running through the national government at this moment,” said Adriana Calvo, who heads an organization composed of survivors of disappeared persons. “There’s a saying that justice must come before bread, work and health. It’s absurd to think that Argentina can solve its other problems when there are mass murderers walking the streets.”

The impending extraditions prompted Congress to scrap the amnesty laws.

The laws, passed by Congress in 1986 and 1987, exculpated lower-ranking officers and imposed a date after which Dirty War crime suspects could not be prosecuted, effectively scuttling nearly all of the cases against them.

Mr. Kirchner called the laws unconstitutional, arguing that they were passed at a time when sectors of the military were staging uprisings against President Raul Alfonsin.

Most Argentines, including human rights groups and the Dirty War crime suspects themselves, would prefer trials in Argentina to extraditions.

Analysts say the suspects are unlikely to be extradited now and that Mr. Kirchner’s decree was a means of forcing justice to be meted out in Argentina.

Pollsters say most Argentines are in favor of bringing to justice those guilty of crimes during the dictatorship. Although resentment runs high in the armed forces, analysts say, the threat of a military revolt is negligible.

“This stand on human rights has to be seen within the context of a broader policy of institutional and political reform, which has become a priority for the Kirchner administration,” said Graciela Romer, a Buenos Aires-based political analyst.

Since assuming office on May 25, Mr. Kirchner has begun an overhaul of the nation’s debilitated institutions, purging the top ranks of the federal police and military, investigating the notoriously corrupt federal pension and social security agency and lobbying legislators to impeach members of the discredited Supreme Court.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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