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Future of Argentine rights trials up in air as deadline nears

Widespread confusion surrounds the future of human rights trials in Argentina with the approach of the Feb. 22 deadline imposed by the controversial punto final legislation. Passed in December, the law gave the civilian courts 60 days to initiate proceedings against an estimated 1,000 military and police officials accused of human rights abuses during the ``dirty war'' of the 1970s. After Sunday, any of the accused not formally cited to appear before the courts will be absolved of any further legal action and in effect will be granted an amnesty.

Over the past two months, the courts have been working overtime to investigate information recently received from the military courts and Defense Ministry to determine whether there is a legal basis for beginning proceedings against each of the accused.

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But so far only a handful of new cases have been initiated, and there is now an air of tense expectancy as to what the courts will decide in the next two days. According to the letter of the law, the courts have only to draw up a list by Sunday of those who will eventually be called before the courts for investigatory hearings.

However, a cat-and-mouse game seems to be going on between some in the government and the armed forces on one hand and the courts and human rights organizations on the other. The former appear to be trying to limit the scope of the trials, while the latter want as few of the accused as possible to benefit from the amnesty.

The Supreme Court is threatening to intervene in a dispute between the Defense Ministry and the federal court in the city of Bah'ia Blanca, which is investigating accusations against some 50 officers and six generals.

The lower court had asked the ministry for a list of military personnel in charge of various units in the 1970s that were linked to known detention and torture centers and to various paramilitary squads that kidnapped opposition suspects, many of whom were never seen again.

The Defense Ministry took three weeks to respond after the punto final clock had begun running, and then the information was found to be incomplete. The government ombudsman said there had been ``an obstruction of justice'' and has threatened to carry out an investigation.

The Supreme Court is also now considering an appeal against the punto final law, on the grounds of its alleged unconstitutionality.

The court has 90 days - until mid-May - to make a judgment. If the appeal is upheld, the scope for continued legal action against all the accused is once again thrown wide open. The unconstitutionality argument alleges that the law creates an exception for the military under the legal system, placing them above the law, whereas the Constitution states that all citizens are equal before the law.

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Meanwhile, the government appears uncertain of how to deal with some high-ranking officers who have made provocative statements in recent weeks. One retired Air Force general publicly alleged that the government was being run by Marxists. In a similar vein, Rear Admiral Jos'e Arriola, Navy head of operations, accused rights leaders of being ``fellow travelers with the Marxists.''

President Ra'ul Alfons'in is himself a founder of one of the human rights organizations.

The Air Force general has been disciplined, while the Defense Ministry has stated that the declarations of the Rear Admiral ``are being studied carefully.'' General R'ios Erenu, Armed Forces head, has also been asked for a ``clarification'' of recent statements in which he said that Argentina owed its democracy to the armed forces - the same armed forces that carried out the military coup in 1976 and were subsequently responsible for the disappearance of some 9,000 persons.

On a more sinister level, a magazine editorially linked to the armed forces, with a widespread circulation, ran a cover story this week on the personal security protection of President Alfons'in. A photograph of the President with the cross hairs of a telescopic sight superimposed over his head was published on the front cover with a caption asking, ``Is Alfons'in's safety secure?''

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