Argentine Police on Trial Over 'Night of the Pencils'

Times Staff Writer

Ten years ago, in an episode now called "the Night of the Pencils," security agents dragged a group of high school students from their homes in the provincial Argentine capital of La Plata. Their crime was lobbying for reduced student rates on local buses, which was formally described as "subversion in the schools."

Seven of the students, aged 14 to 18 at the time they disappeared, are among 9,000 Argentines missing and presumed dead in an epidemic of state terrorism known as the "dirty war," which lasted from 1976 to 1980.

On Thursday, seven police officials, two of them retired army generals, went on trial, charged with nearly 300 counts of human rights violations, including murder. The sole survivor of the Night of the Pencils is among about 100 witnesses for the prosecution.

8 Clandestine Jails

The principal defendant is Gen. Ramon J. Camps, chief of police for Buenos Aires province during the worst of the dirty war. Witnesses interviewed by a government investigating commission have accused Camps of overseeing at least eight clandestine jails where kidnaped suspects were tortured and killed by police and military intelligence agents.

"Killer, killer!" chanted a group of the missing Argentines' relatives as they marched in a demonstration near the courthouse Thursday.

Soon after the trial began, four of the civilian police defendants angrily interrupted the proceedings, challenging the court's authority and dismissing their defense lawyers.

"We who made defense of the society our vocation and profession are today brought to trial by the same society we defended in a transfer of guilt we all know is neither legitimate nor just," the four said in a statement they tried to read.

Presiding Judge Guillermo Ledesma halted the reading and ordered the four--police commanders Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz, Alberto Rousse and Luis Hector Vides and police surgeon Jorge Antonio Berges--removed from the courtroom.

Camps and retired Gen. Ovidio Pablo Richieri, Camps' successor as provincial police chief, chose not to appear in court, leaving police Cpl. Norberto Cozzani as the only defendant present for a trial expected to last about a month. The defendants, who face different charges, could be sentenced from 20 years to life if convicted.

Camps, 59, now a cancer patient in a military hospital, has been outspokenly unrepentant. Rejecting the civilian court's right to try "an army general for the sole reason of having done his strict and sacred duty," he has argued that the armed forces were justified in leading an effort to defeat Marxist guerrillas.

"We won militarily but not politically," Camps wrote recently. In a statement to the press this week, he called the trial a "parody intended to give a coat of legality to a sentence previously decided by the Marxist power which rules us today under a social democratic guise."

Judges and Jury

The proceedings, in a downtown courtroom before six federal judges who are also the jury, is a follow-up to a historic trial last year in which five members of the military juntas that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, including two former presidents, were convicted of human rights abuses.

The human rights trials were ordered by President Raul Alfonsin, an elected civilian, as a way of coming to terms with Argentina's bloody past under military rule. Civilian courts took jurisdiction after military tribunals refused to act.

Human rights groups want more such trials. They say that at least 1,000 military, police and civilian kidnapers, torturers and murderers have been identified by survivors. The armed forces and their supporters want an amnesty that would stop the trials altogether.

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