Argentina's new Army government, haunted by the thousands of disappearances and other human rights offenses attributed to military rule, is seeking to curtail any review of the alleged abuses before allowing a civilian government to take power.
Gen. Carlos Cerda, the Army's legal counsel and subsecretary of the Interior Ministry, said in an interview that the Army is now studying a proposed decree that would protect military officers from being investigated in connection with the disappearance of approximately 6,000 to 15,000 Argentines during the late 1970s.
Cerda confirmed previous government statements that the military does not intend to provide a list of the persons who disappeared or an account of what happened to them. Most are now presumed to have been killed by government security and paramilitary forces.
Cerda's remarks tended to confirm reports by political leaders and analysts here that the Army leadership of Gen. Cristino Nicolaides and President Reynaldo Bignone intends to make few concessions on sensitive human rights issues while arranging the transition to civilian rule in 1984.
Military leaders, who argue that what they describe as a "dirty war" against terrorists was justified, have insisted that no investigation of alleged human rights abuses will be allowed. Past military administrations have hinted at a plan for banning investigations or granting amnesty to military officers, and Cerda's remarks indicated that protective legislation is being considered.
While the Bignone government's apparent plan for a preemptive decree has alarmed human rights activists, much of Argentina's political leadership now appears willing to quietly strike an agreement with the armed forces on the question of the thousands of missing.
"The politicians don't want to put forward human rights problems because they are afraid that if they do, there will be no elections," said Jose Federico Westerkamp, a leading Argentine scientist and human rights activist who was jailed last month for several days for criticizing Argentina's court system.
Military officials have discussed the issue informally with party leaders, and political sources now say an agreement could be reached to allow the decree in exchange for a general public explanation of the official violence by the military.
"The majority of the people don't consider it an important problem for the country, and so neither do most of the politicians," Cerda said.
Human rights activists disagree.
"Any politician who takes power is going to have to respond to the same appeals for justice," said Nora de Cortinas, a leader of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of 2,500 family members of disappeared persons.
Former military president Jorge Videla and other officials have admitted that some "excesses" were committed by the military, but have refused to provide an account of their actions or answer charges that thousands of innocent persons, including several hundred children, were carried away by the paramilitary squads that for three years cruised the streets of Argentina's cities almost nightly.
The Bignone government, while lifting restrictions on political activity, relaxing controls on the press and actively seeking the support of political leaders, has made no move to break the long silence on the disappeared persons or respond on other human rights issues.
The Army government appears to have abandoned any intention to honor a pledge made by former interior minister Alfredo Saint Jean in March to give relatives information this year on the fate of thousands of disappeared persons.
"It just turned out to be another government lie," de Cortinas said.