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Monday, Aug. 20, 2001

Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, two French nuns, were missionaries in Argentina in 1976. That year, the military junta took power, and the following year, the two were "disappeared." Navy officer Alfredo Astiz, the man responsible for their abduction and murder, was said to have called them the "flying nuns," a reference to how their bodies were thrown from an airplane into the sea.

Astiz, himself dubbed the "Angel of Death" because of his good looks and murderous habits, was later convicted in absentia for the killings by a French court. Although he was sentenced to life imprisonment, he has never served a day behind bars for the crimes. Nor has he been punished for the many other killings in which he is implicated.

While Astiz' story is shocking, it is not unusual. Thousands were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered during Argentina's years of military dictatorship, yet few of the guilty have been punished, and none with sentences befitting their crimes' seriousness. But now, in Argentina and elsewhere, this just may be changing.

Amnesties and Pardons

Because of sweeping amnesty laws passed in 1986 and 1987, only a handful of senior junta members were ever convicted of the grave and systematic crimes committed during military rule. The few military officials who did end up in prison in the mid-1980s, moreover, found that their stay there was brief. Under pressure from the armed forces, Argentina's president issued a comprehensive series of pardons in 1989 and 1990.

By the end of 1990, less than a decade after the country's return to democracy, the pursuit of justice for junta-era abuses seemed to be at an end. All of the killers were free, and indeed many of them, including Astiz himself, were still working for the military.

Café Society for Torturers

If any story epitomized the early 1990s in Argentina — the lack of justice for the victims and the brazenness of the guilty — it was that of the former political prisoner who ran into his torturer on the streets of Buenos Aires, or of the mother who faced her daughter's killer in a café. Astiz, who loved to strut around the fashionable beach town of Mar del Plata, was a particularly frequent and notorious sighting.

But the total freedom from accountability that men such as Astiz enjoyed began to give way in 1995. That year, a former naval officer publicly confessed to having participated in throwing drugged and naked detainees out of airplanes during the military regime. According to the officer, whose statements were later confirmed by others', between 1,500 and 2,000 people were killed in this way between 1976 and 1977.

The officer's horrific revelations reopened the public debate about Argentina's past. In the courts, cases that had been filed by organizations representing the victims began moving forward. Many of these cases involved the missing children of political prisoners: babies born to mothers held in detention, who were given false birth certificates and handed over to military couples. Such cases were specifically excluded from the amnesty laws and the presidential pardons.

Arrests of former high military officials in Argentina began in mid-1998, and were ratified by higher courts in 1999. At present, there are twelve former officials currently in jail or under house arrest awaiting trial for the theft of babies.

Pinochet's Progeny

Just as cases have pushed forward in Argentina, parallel developments have been taking place abroad. Although criminal cases had earlier been filed in various European courts against Astiz and others — and in fact, Astiz, as mentioned above, was even convicted in France — these cases were viewed as mainly symbolic. At best, they led defendants to restrict their vacation plans to non-European destinations.

But the 1998 detention in the United Kingdom of Augusto Pinochet made such cases much more real. Although Pinochet was allowed to return to Chile for health reasons in March 2000, his long detention greatly strengthened the principle of universal jurisdiction for human rights atrocities.

The Pinochet precedent, as it is known, has already been extended to Argentines suspected of human rights crimes. Last year, pursuant to a Spanish warrant, the Mexican justice system detained Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, a naval officer believed to have worked in the same notorious detention center as Astiz. A Mexican court has already ruled in favor of Cavallo's extradition, and if Cavallo's appeal fails, he will be sent to Spain for prosecution.

Prisoner Astiz

Astiz himself has not escaped these developments. His closest brush with justice came just last month, when he was detained for possible extradition to Italy. The Italian courts had asked Argentina to extradite Astiz for the "disappearance" of three Italian-Argentines, and, to the surprise of many observers, an Argentina federal judge ordered his arrest.

Unfortunately, the Argentine Foreign Ministry denied Italy's request last week, as well as a similar request from France. Astiz was released on August 14, having spent a month and a half in police custody.

Argentina's Opportunity

Astiz' release was a disappointing setback to those seeking his prosecution, but it does not necessarily mean that he will remain a free man. In defending the decision not to extradite Astiz, the Argentine Foreign Ministry argued that his extradition would intrude upon the jurisdiction of the Argentine courts. According to this view, which parallels the argument made by Chilean authorities in opposing Pinochet's extradition to Spain, only Argentina's courts have the power to judge crimes committed on Argentine soil.

Just as Chile did, in fact, end up prosecuting Pinochet upon his return to Chile, Argentina should now prosecute Astiz. There are two ways in which this could be done.

First, if a judge were willing to declare Argentina's amnesty laws null and void, Astiz could be charged with the forced disappearance of the three Italian-Argentines, among other crimes. One Argentine judge made such a ruling in March 2001, but the country's higher courts have not yet ruled on the propriety of this landmark decision, which is being appealed by the defendants in that case.

Alternatively, Astiz could be charged with baby theft. So far, Astiz has been questioned on this issue by an Argentine judge, but has not yet faced criminal charges. Yet last week, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Astiz would not be extradited, it also said that the government had sent details of the Italian extradition request to an Argentine court, asking it to investigate Astiz' responsibility for this crime.

With nearly two decades having passed since Argentina's military junta left power, justice is long overdue in Argentina. It is time for Astiz to face his accusers in court, not on the beaches of Mar del Plata.

Joanne Mariner, a FindLaw columnist, is Deputy Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. Her prior column on prosecuting Pinochet may be found in the archive of her columns on this site.

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