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Argentina Pardons ‘Dirty War’ Figures

Times Staff Writer

President Carlos Saul Menem, saying he wanted to heal lingering wounds, announced pardons Saturday for 39 military and police commanders charged in the killings of thousands of civilians in Argentina’s “dirty war” against left-wing subversion in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Menem also pardoned 64 guerrillas accused of taking part in violence that led to a military coup in 1976 and then years of brutal repression of government foes.

However, he excluded from the pardon--for now--the only guerrilla now serving a jail term and six senior officers charged with, or convicted of, human rights crimes, including two imprisoned former military presidents of the country.

Menem, who spent five years in jail during the dictatorship, also absolved 174 military officers who took part in three uprisings against former President Raul Alfonsin’s government. Alfonsin took office after the military regime stepped down in 1983.

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Menem, who took office in July, said he hoped the sweeping pardons would end the recriminations of recent years and allow Argentines to look to the future, concentrating on rebuilding democratic institutions and emerging from the worst economic morass in the nation’s history.

“That those who died fighting for their ideals rest in peace; that their memory not serve to divide Argentines; that their blood serve to unite us more, to create for ourselves, for our children and for our children’s children, an atmosphere of peace, of progress, of well-being,” Menem said in one of the decrees granting the pardons.

Alfonsin, of the Radical Civic Union, had made human rights and the restoration of the rule of law a cornerstone of his government, and his government’s prosecution of former military junta members was a unique event in Latin America. At least 9,000 civilians disappeared and were presumed killed during the military regime’s campaign to crush guerrilla bands and other leftist opposition.

Criticism From Some

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Human rights groups and most opposition parties said that the pardons amounted to caving in to military pressure for absolution and would serve notice to the unrepentant armed forces that they could expect immunity for gross abuses.

“I’m not sure whether it’s fear, or a promise he (Menem) made to them (the armed forces), or that he seriously believes this will end the uprisings, but he is wrong,” said Rene de Epelbaum, a leader of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo whose three children disappeared during the dictatorship.

“These insurrections now are going to recur each time that these soldiers see something that they don’t like,” she said. “A blackmailer always asks for more. After this, the armed forces will want a monument to show they were all heroes, brave warriors.”

In all, the pardons covered 280 people, including two former military presidents.

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It excluded four former military junta members who were convicted of human rights offenses and sentenced to long prison terms, including former President Jorge R. Videla. Also excluded were former Buenos Aires police chief Ramon Camps, serving a 25-year prison sentence, and Carlos Guillermo Suarez Mason, a former 1st Army Corps commander who was extradited from the United States to face human rights charges.

Rebel Leader Excluded

Menem also omitted Mario Firmenich, leader of the once-feared Montonero guerrillas. The Montoneros, whose ranks included many one-time members of Menem’s Peronist party, carried out some of the fiercest rebel attacks in the 1970s. Firmenich was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the 1975 kidnapings of Juan and Jorge Born, members of a prominent business family that is playing a central role in Menem’s economic program.

However, the president has said that the convicted former junta members and Firmenich will also be pardoned before the end of the year in a second stage of his program of “national reconciliation and pacification.”

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He did include among those pardoned Gen. Albano Harguindegui, who was facing charges initiated in a complaint by Menem himself.

In a separate decree, Menem also pardoned former President Leopoldo F. Galtieri, air force Lt. Gen. Basilio A. Lami Dozo and Adm. Jorge I. Anaya, who were sentenced last October to 12 years in prison for negligence in their handling of Argentina’s war against Britain in 1982 over the Falkland Islands.

Galtieri benefited twice: He was pardoned both for the Falklands accusation and separate, pending human rights charges in the interior Argentine cities of Rosario and Parana.

The military rebellions against Alfonsin were motivated primarily by younger officers’ demands that charges against officers be dropped and that jailed former junta members be freed.

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Concessions Made

After each uprising, Alfonsin made concessions limiting the number of prosecutions, and the confrontations ended without fighting. It was unclear each time whether loyalist troops actually would have opened fire against the rebels had they been ordered to do so.

Menem pardoned more than 100 officers who took part in the rebellions, including Col. Mohamed Seineldin, leader of last December’s uprising, and Lt. Col. Aldo Rico, who led the first two revolts in April, 1987, and January, 1988. The military high command now will decide whether the two officers are to be retired or remain on active duty.

All of the lower-ranking officers who took part in the uprisings also were pardoned, along with five civilians who helped take over the Buenos Aires airport in January, 1988.

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The Roman Catholic Church had endorsed Menem’s decision to resolve the civilian-military conflict once and for all, as had major business organizations. But thousands of opponents joined a march against the expected pardons last month, and several organizations have vowed to fight the pardons in court, saying that the rule of law should prevail if true democracy is to endure.


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