BUENOS AIRES, JAN. 2 -- Having caused a wave of protest by pardoning the man considered the architect of the "dirty war" in which 9,000 Argentines died, President Carlos Menem is now trying to persuade the freed general to keep quiet.
Statements by former military junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla since his release four days ago "are creating . . . unrest," Menem said in advising Videla to keep his thoughts to himself.
Videla was a leader of the 1976 coup in which the armed forces seized power. As head of the ruling junta he launched a brutal campaign of kidnappings and executions aimed at exterminating the Argentine left, an episode known here as the "dirty war." He and other leaders of the military regime, convicted and imprisoned for human rights crimes after the return to civilian rule in 1983, were ordered released by Menem last Saturday.
Menem said his pardon was designed to close the books on the dirty war, but immediately after walking out of Magdalena prison, Videla reopened them.
Videla released an open letter to the army chief of staff, Gen. Martin Bonnet -- a strong advocate of the pardon measure -- in which he said that his only crime was to "defend the nation against subversive aggression and prevent the establishment of a totalitarian regime."
Videla wrote that his "unjust imprisonment constituted an act of service," and asked for "the vindication of the army and the reparation of military honor." Not even the pardon, he wrote, constituted the "full vindication" that was needed.
Videla's lack of repentance drew criticism even from those who backed Menem's decision. "The army and the armed forces do not need to be vindicated, much less at the request of criminals," said Congressman Miguel Angel Toma, a member of Menem's Peronist party and head of the defense committee in the lower house of Congress.
Toma said the letter was inspired by "the messianic spirit that motivates those who killed their own comrades in cold blood," and said the pardon "does not erase the crimes."
Menem said he is sticking by his decision to pardon Videla and the others, but added that Videla "should have kept quiet."
Local newspapers have reported that Videla broke a "pact of silence" that had been negotiated beforehand with the pardoned former officers, but Menem denied that any such agreement existed.
Menem said the "pardons are a ay of closing a black chapter in the nation's history." Reminding reporters that he had been arrested and jailed after the 1976 coup, Menem said, "Let it be clear that I have moral authority to do this because I was one of the victims of the dirty war, not like some others who are now so busy tearing their clothes but who played a collaborating role in those tragic years that we lived through."
But criticism continued. Bishop Jorge Novak of the Buenos Aires suburb of Quilmes said the measure represents "the final triumph of violence . . . and a humiliating defeat for the democratic system."
Julio Cesar Strassera, who served as one of the prosecutors in the trials of Videla and other officers, resigned in protest as Argentina's ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. "I cannot be a human rights ambassador when the greatest violators of human rights are now at liberty," he said.
Tens of thousands of Argentines attended a demonstration here Sunday to protest the pardons. Menem argued that the turnout of perhaps 40,000 was small and attacked the protesters for spray-painting graffiti on the walls of public buildings.
The other junta leaders affected by the pardon have been more circumspect. A former leftist guerrilla leader released along with the generals -- Montoneros chief Mario Firmenich -- was reported to have applied for a passport and may be seeking to leave the country.