A crusading Spanish magistrate who won the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet indicted the leaders of Argentina's former military junta and dozens of their lieutenants today on charges of torture, terrorism and genocide during the regime's "dirty war" against left-wing subversives from 1976 to 1983.
With a 282-page international arrest warrant issued in Madrid, Judge Baltasar Garzon dramatically expanded his efforts to bring to trial those alleged to be responsible for dictatorial atrocities in Latin America. The move also highlighted the legal pressure that is building against authorities responsible for abuses in other regions, a movement that seeks to bring governments from Belgrade to Jakarta to account for their actions.
The legal measures Garzon brought to bear against Pinochet, who was arrested in Britain in October 1998 on a Spanish extradition request, already has caused current and former dictators in Latin America, Africa and Asia to alter their travel plans for fear of similar arrest, human rights activists have pointed out.
In today's sweeping indictment, Garzon named former military leaders Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, Gen. Jorge Videla, Adm. Emilio Massera and 95 other officers who presided over seven years of terror in Argentina, a period in which more than 15,000 people--including government opponents not involved in violence--were killed or disappeared. Human rights activists estimate that 600 Spanish citizens were among them, giving Garzon a legal basis for his charges.
Garzon, nicknamed "superjudge" because of his tendency to tackle high-profile cases, pushed his test of international law by calling not only for the arrest of members of the governing junta but by seeking the arrest of many of their subordinates as well. Human rights officials took this as a message to field officers in such places as East Timor and Rwanda that they, too, may one day be held responsible in international courts for their actions.
Chances are slim that Argentina will cooperate immediately with the warrant, and the government issued no formal comment. But President Carlos Menem has complained that Spain, Latin America's old colonial master, is meddling in Argentina's domestic affairs, and he has dismissed Garzon's investigation as irrelevant to Argentina.
The move is certain to turn up the heat on a diplomatic feud between Spain and some Latin American countries over the issue. Menem and Chilean President Eduardo Frei, leaders of nations that are now democracies, have said they intend to protest Garzon's actions by not attending an Iberian-American summit conference in Cuba this month. Garzon's latest indictment also seems bound to raise concerns in Bolivia, where President Hugo Banzer, although democratically elected, is a former dictator.
"The message is that justice won't just stop with Pinochet," said Carlos Salinas, Latin America director for Amnesty International. "There is a movement rolling ahead to obtain a wider scale of justice. Anyone who participates in crimes against humanity could face judgment by international law."
Argentina's "dirty war" was one of the most brutal crackdowns on government opponents in modern Latin American history. Testimony has surfaced here and in Spain that dissidents were thrown to their deaths from airplanes flying over the Rio de la Plata, that electric cattle prods were used to to torture pregnant women and that newborn children were abducted for adoption by military and police officers.
But the case against the Argentines is likely to prove more complicated than that against Pinochet. Unlike Chile, where Pinochet was granted total immunity and was even celebrated by the right-wing establishment, Argentina has taken significant steps toward prosecuting those responsible for atrocities here.
Following the return to democracy in 1983--after the disgrace of the Argentine military in its failed war with Britain over the Falkland Islands--the aging military leaders were subjected to landmark trials. Videla, Massera and Galtieri were sentenced to life in prison, although lower-ranking officers won amnesties.
In 1990, for reasons of "national unity," President Menem issued a presidential pardon freeing the three junta members. Last year, however, they were placed under house arrest as prosecutors found a loophole in amnesty laws and charged them with kidnapping the children of female prisoners.
Some legal experts cautioned that charging the three leaders in Spain may represent an affront to the significant strides Argentina has already made in redressing the junta's excesses. But relatives of "dirty war" victims here disagreed, saying the punishment has not fit their crimes.
"House arrest? These guys are going out to dinner when they feel like it and attending Sunday Mass," said Hebe de Bonafini, president of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women whose children were killed or disappeared. Bonafini's two sons and one daughter were killed in the "dirty war."
"And what about the others who went totally unpunished?" she said. "To me, justice hasn't been served."
Menem's term ends Dec. 10, when President-elect Fernando de la Rua, of the center-left Alliance, takes office. De la Rua has been vague about cooperating with Garzon. An aide, Dario Loperfido, said today that the question for now is up to Menem but that de la Rua's office does not view the indictment as an extradition request.
CAPTION: Gen. Jorge Videla, left, and Adm. Emilio Massera, are among 98 former Argentine officials indicted by a Spanish magistrate.