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Uruguay human rights amnesty shows fragility of civilian rule

``Uruguay's nascent democracy has ended 1986 with the civilians in office and the military in power,'' was the wry observation of a political commentator in Montevideo last week. The recent approval by the Uruguayan Congress of a total amnesty for all military and police officials accused of human rights abuses during the military dictatorship of 1973 to 1985 appears to be a direct result of military pressure upon the civilian government.

Under a deal worked out in 1984, only top military leaders would be put on trial following the return to democratic rule in March 1985, says an aide to President Julio Mar'ia Sanguinetti.

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``The position of the armed forces has hardened since then,'' the aide said. ``Their security services discovered corruption at high levels of the new civilian government and so they decided to press for a total amnesty.''

Speaking before the Senate debate on the amnesty bill Dec. 19, Vice-President Enrique Tarigo said the military had refused to allow any of its members to appear before civilian courts that were due to begin hearings in human rights trials the following Monday. The bill was approved Dec. 22 and signed by President Sanguinetti just hours before the courts were due to begin the hearings.

The passing of the bill, in effect a presidential pardon, thus avoided a direct challenge to the Constitution by the military; but it highlighted the fragile nature of Uruguay's government and democracy.

Supporters of the amnesty include the ruling Colorado Party and part of the opposition Blanco (National) Party. They say it was necessary to assuage the military and thus allow time for democracy to consolidate. But to opponents, aside from the matter of bringing to justice perpetrators of the coup and repression, the bill throws into question the future of Uruguay's political system.

``An amnesty vindicates the methods adopted by the armed forces during and after [1973], and creates a justification for them to intervene again ... if they deem political developments to be against their liking,'' said an editor of La Brecha, a respected center-left weekly.

Before 1973, Uruguay was considered one of the oldest and most stable democracies in Latin America. According to a 1985 congressional report, 164 political figures ``disappeared'' during military rule. An estimated 50,000 persons passed through prisons and detention centers, and many underwent torture. Tens of thousands of others fled into exile. All this from a population of only 3 million.

The military's justification was to wipe out the left-wing Tupamaro guerrilla movement. In doing so, it also imprisoned or forced underground or into exile practically all leaders of the center and left opposition.

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It is the political left that feels the most outraged and threatened by the amnesty, as it suffered the most under military rule. The Frente Amplio, a broad alliance of Socialists, Christian Democrats, and Communists, poses a serious threat to both the Colorado and National parties. If it were to win a future election, observers doubt the military would remain neutral.

The controversy in Uruguay is not yet over though. Opponents of the amnesty are gathering signatures for a petition to hold a referendum on the issue. If they obtain 500,000 signatures, the government is constitutionally obliged to hold a referendum. And the results of a referendum would almost certainly overturn the amnesty. A recent opinion poll showed 70 percent of the population to be in favor of bringing the military to justice.

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