Argentine 'Dirty War' Trials Revive Old Fears, Hostilities

Emilio Guillermo Nani, an ex-army officer, says Argentina's former military government was fighting a war on terrorism.
Emilio Guillermo Nani, an ex-army officer, says Argentina's former military government was fighting a war on terrorism. (By Silvina Frydlewsky --The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 20, 2006

LA PLATA, Argentina -- Argentina is putting its past on trial this year, probing the memories and consciences of those who lived through its bloody "dirty war," which pitted a military government against thousands of dissidents in the 1970s and '80s.

The past -- or a frightening shadow of it -- has come back to life.

Long-standing legal protections that shielded former military personnel from prosecution were removed last year, allowing a series of trials related to the "dirty war" to go forward. The first to face prosecution, an officer with the Buenos Aires provincial police, was recently convicted, and many more people are awaiting their days in court.

A witness in the officer's trial, a 77-year-old bricklayer who testified to being tortured by the military, has been missing for a month and is feared dead. In recent weeks, judges and prosecutors have received threatening letters demanding a halt to the trials.

At the same time, backers of the former military government complain that their opponents, who now control the government and its courts, are persecuting them in the name of vengeance. History hasn't been sympathetic to them, and many say that the trials represent their last chance to voice their argument: that they were the victims of the conflict, attacked by dissident terrorists bent on destroying the country they were trying to protect.

A look at people representing those conflicting points of view -- one a judge leading the trials, the other a retired military officer opposing them -- illustrates how a violent conflict that officially ended more than 20 years ago continues to evolve, anger and terrorize those who were caught up in it.

The Judge

Shortly after Judge Carlos Rozanski walked into his chambers one morning last week, his telephone rang. Considering the angry and ominous calls he has been getting lately, simply answering could have been an invitation to trouble.

But this caller wasn't threatening.

"He's scared," Rozanski said.

It was one of Rozanski's witnesses, a man who had agreed to testify about the human rights abuses he had suffered as a dissident in this riverside city south of Buenos Aires. The disappearance of the bricklayer, also one of Rozanski's witnesses, had led many others to think twice about talking to the judge.

"He's worried about his family," Rozanski said shortly after the call. "This is the effect of terror."

Rozanski, 55, has been learning more than he'd like about those effects, he said, since he delivered the second guilty verdict against a former officer charged with systematic human rights abuses. He had recently received a letter that left him worrying about his own family:

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