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Argentina ends one chapter, starts a new

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Only King Solomon could have bettered the even-handedness of last week's verdict in the human rights trial of the Argentine juntas. This appeared to be the opinion of most Argentines when the Federal Appeals Court convicted five former military leaders of human rights abuses and acquitted four others earlier Dec. 9.

Other elements in Argentine society -- hardline sectors of the armed forces and human rights groups -- disapproved of the verdict, on the grounds that the sentences were too harsh or too light.

But statements by members of the ruling Radical party, the major opposition Peronist party, the Roman Catholic Church, journalists, jurists, and privately even sectors of the armed forces suggested that Argentine society as a whole saw the verdict as a key moment in its history from which the country's democracy should emerge strengthened.

``The verdict may have some defects but it should be considered an honorable example of Argentine democracy in a world that has never seen such a judgement,'' Ernesto Sabato said Dec. 11. Mr. Sabato is an Argentine novelist and the president of a commission whose report last year on over 8,000 cases of Argentine human rights violations led to the trial of the juntas.

Most political observers agree that the importance of the trial was that it was allowed to take place and that the junta members were judged and sentenced by civilian judges.

The generals, admirals, and brigadier generals belong to a sector of Argentine society which has enjoyed virtually unassailable status since a military coup in 1930 first entrenched the armed forces in politics. Throughout Latin America military coups have been commonplace. And the culprits are never judged by subsequent civilian governments.

``We in the armed forces have always been used to getting away with things. Now even the coup mongers are going to have to think long and hard before acting again. There can no longer be the same assurance of immunity,'' says Col. Luis Perlinguer, one of Argentina's leading military analysts.

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