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Alfons'in, and Argentine democracy, strengthened by trial of the generals

With the end of the trial of nine former Argentine military leaders, the consensus is that President Ra'ul Alfons'in has emerged a strengthened leader. President Alfons'in made a brave decision in ordering the trial in the first place. It had been feared from the day the trial opened on April 22 that Alfons'in's unprecedented step of trying military leaders might be his downfall.

Even at the height of their rule (1976 to 1982), when few Argentines protested the ``dirty war'' methods that had been adopted to fight left-wing subversion, the military feared that one day they might find themselves on trial for atrocities they boasted about in private but denied in public. Their secret fears became known as their ``Nuremberg complex.''

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But the eight-month-long trial that ended Dec. 9 was no Nuremberg. Five generals were found guilty: Two received life sentences and three received sentences ranging from 41/2 to 17 years. The other four generals were acquitted, including Gen. Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, who led the country into a disastrous war with Britain over the Falkland Islands.

To some Argentines, the verdicts were so lenient that they seemed dictated by political expedience. Still, it was unprecedented in Latin America for military dictators to be called before civilian judges to account for their crimes.

Alfons'in was the first civilian to be freely and fairly elected to the presidency in Argentina in more than 50 years. The trial tested the country's new democracy.

Alfons'in was able to show his strength by lifting a nationwide state of siege 16 days early. He imposed it Oct. 25 to combat a growing wave of terrorism. The bombings, believed to be the work of disgruntled military security personnel, seemed aimed at intimidating the judges. But the terrorism stopped when the trial ended.

The fact that the verdicts pleased neither the military nor the relatives of their victims is an indication that the judges did their duty.

Hebe Bonafini, leader of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, one of Argentina's first human rights groups, made her protest in the courtroom. She pulled her white scarf -- worn in memory of her two sons who ``disappeared'' -- over her head and marched out. The scarf is a symbol for the routine torture and murder that the military carried out in clandestine jails.

Military supporters have not staged any public protest. They still see nothing wrong in the ``disappearing'' of more than 9,000 people. They argue that if routine torture often leading to death, and summary execution had not been used, Argentina would now be communist.

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The judges balanced severity with leniency. They sent a message, with the controversial acquittals, that not every one in the armed forces should be considered guilty.

The military has always claimed that, because of the pendulum swings of mood in Argentina, they, the heroes, have been transformed into criminals. And they claim that the terrorists, the true criminals, have become heroes. Had all the military defendants been convicted -- as perhaps they should, given the overwhelming weight of the evidence against them (almost 2,000 offenses listed) -- the military could have claimed that the court had satisfied a thirst for revenge, not a hunger for justice.

Alfons'in hoped that proceedings would go ahead according to the Constitution that the military had modified to ensure that they could only be tried by their peers. But the military's own judges used delaying tactics and, when criticized for dragging out the secret trial of the accused commanders, they resigned in a dudgeon.

The Supreme Court decided that civilian judges, using the rules of military justice, should hear the case.

It was poetic justice. A force of destiny and morality seems to have been behind the trial, for events have largely dictated the outcome.

I myself gave testimony before the court for 51/2 hours last April. As a journalist, I was asked to testify by the prosecution about human rights violations. I have spent many hours in many courtrooms in many countries covering trials, but never before have I seen such an impressive example of justice at work. Never before have I seen such an attentive, considerate bench of judges. Never before have I seen such a respectful public.

The values of civilized society, so suddenly restored after Argentina's long dark night of barbarity, contrasted with the tales of horror of close to 1,000 witnesses. It seemed to me then that values were bound to spread beyond the solemn courtroom.

For many years Argentine reality has been but a cruel parody of the country depicted in school textbooks. The trial demonstrated that the words ``justice,'' ``constitution,'' and ``democracy'' are not void of meaning.

Argentines have been so soured into cynicism in the past 50 years by breakdowns in democratic institutions that little optimism is expressed. But the successful conclusion of the trial -- the overcoming of an ordeal for a government which has only moral power because the military still holds the guns -- is a source of inspiration.

Without the trial, Argentina could not change. Now Argentines can set about dealing with the other threat to the survival of their fledgling democracy. So far the plan to halt inflation and rebuild the economy, set in motion the day the trial opened, has been remarkably successful. Inflation has decreased from 30 percent a month to between 2 and 3 percent monthly. Its success stems from the return of confidence that has come with democracy.

Robert Cox lived in Argentina for 20 years, 10 of them as editor of the Buenos Aires Herald. He left in December 1979 after death threats to his family. He is now assistant editor of the News and Courier, Charleston, S.C.

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