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Argentina takes step toward cleaning up 'Dirty War'

The Supreme Court is due to consider reversing amnesty for ex-military men.

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The former Navy officer's dashing white dress suit is long gone. But Alfredo Astiz retains enough of his youthful good looks for Argentines to instantly recognize him as he was led from a courtroom in handcuffs last Friday.

Justice finally looks to be catching up with Mr. Astiz. Twenty years after Argentina's return to democracy, Astiz remains for many the public face of Argentina's military death squads, which human rights groups say were responsible for the disappearance of up to 30,000 people during the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

For years, Astiz and other former officers accused of human rights abuses have been protected by a series of amnesty laws passed in the face of pressure from the military in the years following the return to democracy in 1983.

But all that changed Friday when Argentina's new president, Nestor Kirchner, annulled a decree forbidding extradition of former military men to stand trial abroad for crimes committed in Argentina. Many here hope that Mr. Kirchner's move is just the first step in rolling back all the legislation that has protected the former officers, including amnesty from trials in Argentine courts.

Among the crimes Astiz is accused of is the disappearance of three of the founding members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group formed during military rule to pressure the Army for information about their missing loved ones.

France has wanted to extradite Astiz since 1990 when a French court sentenced him in absentia to life in prison for his role in the disappearance of two French nuns in Argentina. Sweden also wants him in connection with the 1977 killing of Swedish teenager. Since Friday's ruling, he has not responded publicly.

Since the president's move, more than 40 other former officers have been arrested along with Astiz. Spain has issued extradition warrants for men who committed crimes against Spanish nationals. Among those being held is former dictator Jorge Vidal.

Kirchner, who was detained briefly during military rule, has actively identified himself with the "disappeared generation." One of his first acts upon taking power at the end of May was to purge the military of generals whose attitude he considered ambivalent toward the Army's role in the "Dirty War."

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