Pardons voided for Argentine ‘dirty war’ pair

Times Staff Writer

Two leaders of Argentina’s former military junta must serve life terms in prison for “grave violations of human rights,” a federal court ruled here Wednesday after throwing out pardons that had shielded the pair for years.

The three-judge panel restored life sentences for ex-President Gen. Jorge Videla and Adm. Emilio Massera, the former naval chief, pivotal members of the junta that oversaw a reign of terror during the 1976-83 “dirty war” against alleged leftist “subversives.” Videla and Massera, both 81, were the best-known faces of the dictatorship.

The ruling may be largely symbolic. Videla is already under house arrest in his apartment here on charges related to the theft of babies from slain prisoners. Massera has been declared mentally incompetent since suffering a brain hemorrhage and is said to be in a near-vegetative state.

Still, human rights activists applauded the ruling as the latest step in bringing the abusers to justice.


“This ruling restores the route to justice and democracy,” said Andrea Pochak of the Center for Legal and Social Studies here, a human rights group that has followed dirty-war cases. “It is a gesture of vital importance for the future.”

About 9,000 people were killed or “disappeared” during the dictatorship, according to official statistics, though human rights groups say the number of victims was closer to 30,000. Many bodies have not been recovered.

Victims often were tortured, shot and buried in mass graves, or drugged and dumped in the ocean from military aircraft.

The brutality of the junta set a dark standard at a time when military regimes governed much of South America.

The court ruling is the latest illustration of how Argentina under the leadership of center-left President Nestor Kirchner has moved more forcefully than any nation in Latin America to make leaders of former military governments answer for crimes they committed.

Kirchner, who sat out much of the dictatorship in the relative safety of his native Patagonia, has said that “only God” can issue pardons and has pressed courts and Congress to revoke various amnesties and pardons approved under previous governments.

Hundreds of human rights cases against former police and military officials are pending before judges in Argentina.

The country’s return to democracy after the debacle of the 1982 Falklands War with Britain saw both Videla and Massera prosecuted and sentenced to life terms in a case sometimes called the “Argentine Nuremberg.” In a court hearing, a prosecutor memorably declared that such abuses could “never again” mar the nation.

Both men were convicted in connection with dozens of cases of murder, torture and illegal jailings. Both received life terms and went to prison in 1985 under the administration of President Raul Alfonsin.

But after five years, then-President Carlos Menem granted controversial pardons clearing Videla and Massera, along with other accused abusers. Those pardon decrees still remain an extremely contentious issue here.

Wednesday’s ruling labeled the pardons for Videla and Massera unconstitutional and restored the original sentences.

Videla is serving house arrest for his part in one of the dirty war’s more sinister aspects -- the kidnapping of hundreds of infants born to the junta’s victims. No pardon was ever granted for the illicit baby trade, which involved the placing of orphaned children with “good” parents, often military and police families.

Videla’s lawyers are likely to argue that their elderly client should remain under house arrest as they appeal the latest ruling to the Supreme Court.


Andres D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.