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Argentine Pardon Unlikely to Resolve Rights Conflict

EVER since their children began to disappear in the mid-1970s, a group of women have been marching around the Plaza de Mayo opposite the presidential palace every Thursday to demand justice. Tomorrow, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo will march once again. But this time their silent protest will also repudiate President Carlos Sa'ul Menem's pardon for military officers and civilians charged with human rights violations under the former military regime.

Resorting to a constitutional prerogative, President Menem last weekend pardoned 39 senior military officers who were on trial for abuses during the 1976-83 regime, when at least 9,000 people disappeared.

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The pardon extends to 174 other members of the military and civilians who led three uprisings against former President Ra'ul Alfons'in in 1987 and 1988, three former military rulers sentenced for ``mishandling'' the 1982 Falklands war with Britain, and 64 people accused of belonging to terrorist groups over a decade ago.

The move has met bitter criticism from human rights groups and some politicians, including members of the ruling Peronist Party. But it has also had the open support of businessmen, conservative politicians in alliance with the government, and some bishops of Argentina's influential Roman Catholic church.

Supporters argue the pardon will provide a definitive solution to the so-called ``military problem,'' a euphemism widely used to refer to ill-feeling within the armed forces over human rights trials. Critics, however, claim the pardon will deepen wounds it was meant to heal.

Like the rest of human rights groups in Argentina, the Mothers have branded the broad pardon ``a moral aberration'' and a ``mockery of justice.'' They also warned the move ``jeopardizes everyone, including democracy.''

Menem says he is trying to achieve just the opposite. Since he took office three months ago, hardly a day has gone by without his government's insisting on the need to close a chapter of confrontations between the military and civilians.

``Is it possible to build a nation over hatred among brothers?'' the president asked a crowd a few days ago.

Defense Minister Italo Luder hit a more pragmatic note. He told foreign reporters the pardon was essential to restore political stability in Argentina, a prerequisite for attracting badly needed investment from abroad.

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President Alfons'in ordered the human rights trials shortly after taking office in 1983. But later, under intense pressure from the military, he pushed through legislation to reduce drastically the number of officers on trial.

This pressure rebuilt last week. High-ranking military officers warned that there might be trouble if the pardon did not come before Oct. 13, the date trials would have had to resume.

Six senior officers already convicted of human rights abuses, ex-Gen. Carlos Su'arez Mason, and Montonero terrorist leader Mario Firmenich are not included in any of the four pardon decrees, but may be released in a ``second stage,'' Menem said this week.

So far the pardon has brought a feeling more of resignation than of peace to Argentina, together with suspicion the military problem is not over yet.

``The pardon does not solve anything,'' says human rights campaigner Emilio Nignone. ``Pressures will continue until the military gets a complete vindication of their role during the `dirty war.'''

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