March 24, 2006

Thirty years on, Argentina remembers bloody coup

By Louise Egan

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) - President Nestor
Kirchner urged Argentina's courts on Friday to overturn pardons
granted to hundreds of military officers charged with torture
and murder during the country's "Dirty War."

In a day of tearful vigils and protests to remember the
horrors of the 1976 military coup exactly 30 years ago,
Kirchner made his plea in a speech at a military college near
Buenos Aires.

The presidential pardons by former President Carlos Menem
in the 1990s shield alleged abusers from prosecution and
prison. They are considered the last remaining obstacle to
bringing the military to justice for human rights abuses during
one of Latin America's bloodiest dictatorships.

"Perhaps the time has come to disarticulate the network of
impunity that comes with those pardons," Kirchner said.

"The justice system has already declared them
unconstitutional in some concrete cases ... And now, it is the
judiciary that must determine whether the pardons are valid or

Menem issued the pardons in an attempt at what he called
national reconciliation. But Kirchner said the leniency had
only increased frustration among victims' families.

Officially, some 12,000 people were killed or disappeared
under the 1976-1983 Dirty War -- a witch hunt of leftists by a
military driven by Cold War politics. Human rights groups put
the number at 30,000.


For the past week, Argentines have been inundated with
emotional testimonies and images of the coup as they geared up
for the anniversary, declared a holiday for the first time.

Posters plastered around the capital blared "nunca mas" --
"never again" -- while television dredged up the painful past
by showing special documentaries and interviews about the era.

Overnight on Thursday and again late Friday, thousands
gathered in Plaza de Mayo, the downtown square where relatives
of the disappeared have marched for three decades demanding

Wearing their trademark white handkerchiefs, the "Mothers
of Plaza de Mayo" held photographs of their loved ones
alongside youths waving flags and banners.

At ESMA, a notorious detention center, torture survivors
led 61 foreign diplomats on a tour of the barracks where
prisoners were held bound and hooded in tiny wooden cubicles.
Babies born in the prison to mothers who later disappeared were
abducted by military families.

"This really brings home the human dimension of the
suffering that happened. This should make all of us who live in
democracy grateful for the fact that our rights are respected,"
said Catherine Royle, deputy ambassador at the British Embassy.

The government plans to turn the center into a museum open
to the public, one of several human rights initiatives Kirchner
has adopted since taking office in 2003.

In June, the Supreme Court repealed two amnesty laws
shielding military officers from human rights prosecutions and
cleared the way for hundreds to be tried for human rights

But Kirchner said on Friday that not all blame lay with the
military for the breakdown of democracy in 1976, urging the
Catholic Church, the media and political parties to own up to
their part of the blame.