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Argentina takes steps to bring Dirty War-era criminals to justice before death

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Enrique Marcarian/Reuters

(Read caption) Former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla (l.) and Reynaldo Bignone, a former general who ruled Argentina in 1982-1983, listen to the verdict during their trial in a courthouse in Buenos Aires, on July 5, 2012.

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Inscribed on a vast wall in the main cemetery in Santiago, Chile are the names of approximately 3,000 people “disappeared” by the military government that ruled there from 1973 to 1990. The head of that government, Augusto Pinochet, died in 2006 without ever being tried for crimes against humanity, and his impunity is a source of anger for many Chileans who wanted him to face the justice system. 

In contrast to Chile, last week in neighboring Argentina former dictators Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone were handed prison sentences for overseeing the systematic kidnapping of babies from activists disappeared – kidnapped and murdered – during Argentina's 1976-1983 Dirty War.

Both Mr. Videla and Mr. Bignone, 86 and 84 respectively, are already serving life sentences for human rights abuses. But with close to 1,000 others linked to the military regime being investigated for similar crimes, the Argentine judiciary is under enormous stress. In Argentina more than 250 alleged perpetrators of crimes against humanity have passed away without being brought to justice. Others are too unwell to face the courts. In response, the Argentine court system is stepping up its efforts to create an environment where dictatorship-era crimes can be tried in a timely manner. It is an attempt to not only bring justice, but a sense of closure to a tragic period in the country's recent past.

“Human rights abuses are an absolute priority,” said Pedro David, president of Argentina’s second-highest criminal court, in December.

In the past, cases involved huge volumes of evidence and victims were required to testify on several occasions. Trials have since been expedited by allowing judges to combine cases. Victims may also testify just once for multiple defendants. While only two convictions were brought in 2006, there were more than 100 in 2010.

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