Amnesty laws to be scrapped

2003-08-21 10:49

Buenos Aires - Argentina's Senate voted overwhelmingly early on Thursday to scrap a pair of amnesty laws dating to the 1980s that had ended trials for human rights abuses committed during the country's military dictatorship.

The Senators voted 43-7 with one abstention and 21 lawmakers absent to support the proposal, which was passed last week by the lower House of Deputies.

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

The decision brought raucous applause from visitors' balconies and shouts of "Ole! Ole! Ole!" from human rights activists.

Women wearing scarves denoting the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who are still seeking an accounting for those missing, filled the galleries. Some held up crinkled black-and-white photos of victims who had disappeared during the seven-year junta.

While the Senate vote gave final legislative approval to scrapping the laws, observers said the Supreme Court will likely have the final decision on the laws. Supporters of the laws are expected to appeal to the justice system to maintain them.

At issue was the fate of Argentina's "Full Stop" and "Due Obedience" laws, enacted in 1986 and 1987 respectively. Those laws effectively ended human rights trials after the 1976-83 dictatorship that is blamed for a crackdown on dissidents.

About 9 000 people were officially reported as dead or missing during the junta's years in power, but human rights groups estimated the number could be as high as 30 000 from the seven-year period in which leftist opponents were hunted down, kidnapped off the streets, tortured and made to disappear.

Following Argentina's dictatorship, many ranking military officers were tried on charges of abduction, torture and execution of suspected opponents of the regime. They were imprisoned in 1985 and later pardoned in 1990 by then-President Carlos Menem.

Opponents charge that the "Full Stop" and "Due Obedience" laws effectively cut off further prosecutions. They also complain that the laws were enacted by a fledgling democratic government bent on appeasing army leaders angry over the trials.

"Our decision here will not be a mere declaration of political opinion or intentions, but one in which Congress shows a real commitment to settling our debt with the past," said Senator Jorge Busti, a ruling Peronist party member who favoured scrapping the laws.

But opponents charged that tossing out the amnesty laws would open a can of worms and that Congress could be construed as overstepping bounds and infringing on the courts' decisions.

"Clearly Congress is not equipped with the powers to annul these laws," argued Senator Raul Baglini of the Radical Civic Union.

President Nestor Kirchner began his four-year term in May by moving to reorganize the military high command and dropping several officers who began their careers as junior officers during the junta years.

He also has said he would do all possible to strengthen Argentina's much-criticised justice system and gave human rights new prominence during his weeks in power.

The push in Congress to overturn the amnesty laws gained new ground late last month after a federal judge detained dozens of former military officers from the dictatorship.

Many of the 45 former officers are wanted in Spain in connection with the deaths or disappearances of its citizens in Argentina between 1976 and 1983.

Military officers and their family have argued there is no point to reopening old wounds, nor rejudging crimes that have already been pardoned. They said many military officers were simply doing their duty to defend their country or just taking orders.