A delicate issue for the Argentine government in the aftermath of the Falkland Islands conflict was at least temporarily settled today as three British journalists left Buenos Aires for London after 11 weeks of imprisonment in remote Tierra del Fuego.
The three journalists, Simon Winchester of the Sunday Times and Ian Mather and Tony Prime of the Observer, were released last night by a judge in Ushuaia--on the island in the extreme south--after their newspapers posted bail of about $20,000. The three signed papers saying they would return in two months for trial. They were arrested April 13 and charged with espionage.
At a press conference here, Winchester said the journalists intended to come back "if that is the advice of our lawyers." Mather said the three men had been treated "correctly and well."
The release of the journalists, who denied the spying charges, appeared to settle what had become a nagging issue for a military government frequently charged with human rights violations. During the conflict with Britain, the imprisonment of the reporters was linked to the brief abductions of six other foreign journalists by unknown men as part of a campaign of harassment against potential government critics.
The pressure on the incoming government of Reynaldo Bignone was also intensified by the beating in Buenos Aires last week of another foreign journalist, Andrew Graham-Yooll of Britain's The Guardian, by persons linked to government security forces and the denunciation by human rights groups of the disappearance of two Argentine political activists.
Bignone's government, which is depending on the support of civilian leaders to stay in power until elections are held, has appeared to act quickly to defuse potential political damage because of these issues. In addition to granting the British journalists permission to leave Argentina this evening, government officials also responded to protests by human-rights groups yesterday by revealing the whereabouts of the two activists arrested and secretly held last week.
Human rights leaders said the report by police officials that two leftist activists were in police custody represented a significant advance for rights groups here. In past years, thousands of such disappearances were answered with government silence or denials. Most of the disappeared are believed to be dead.
With Bignone due to be sworn in as president on Thursday, the Army government appeared close to consolidating its support among the armed forces, which have been split by bitter feuding since Argentina's surrender on the Falklands June 14.
Political sources said the Argentine Navy and Air Force, which withdrew from the military government last week, were now negotiating on terms for endorsing or even reentering the government.
A meeting of the three service commanders-in-chief this morning produced no final accord, the informed sources added. But it was believed that the Navy and Air Force might mend their differences with the Army in return for some concessions, perhaps including the naming of a civilian vice president.
The British journalists, who face charges carrying a maximum sentence of eight years, were arrested in Tierra del Fuego's Rio Grande airport, which also serves as an Air Force base. As they sat waiting for a plane to Buenos Aires after a reporting trip to southern Argentina, Winchester said, the three men were watching Argentine warplanes take off. Winchester said he was studying the planes through binoculars and taking notes.
"From hindsight, we can see that the Argentine government might regard that as dangerous from their point of view," Winchester said. But he added that the reporters had worked openly in public places and that there were no restrictions on foreign reporters in Argentina at that time. "We did nothing secret," said Mather.
During their 11 weeks in a prison in Ushuaia, the men said their worse treatment came following the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano May 2. "It was fairly ugly for a couple of days," said Winchester. After intervention by diplomats from the Swiss Embassy, which represents British interests here, conditions improved, he said.
The men felt most in danger, Winchester said, in the days after their arrest, when no information was supplied by the government on their whereabouts as they were whisked from Rio Grande to Buenos Aires and then back to Ushuaia, at the tip of Tierra del Fuego.