Human Rights Watch today condemned the decision of the government of Fernando De la Rúa in Argentina not to extradite former naval officer Alfredo Astiz, an intelligence agent during the country's period of military rule.

Both the Italian and French courts had requested Astiz's extradition in connection with the "disappearance" of citizens of their countries, but on Tuesday the Argentine Foreign Ministry denied the requests, allowing Astiz's release from detention.

"This decision is a victory for impunity unless the government now ensures that Astiz is brought promptly to trial in Argentina," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division. "Argentina has no right to refuse a foreign court jurisdiction over such grave crimes if it does not intend to judge them itself."

The Argentine Foreign Ministry sent letters to the Italian and French embassies in Buenos Aires asserting that the Argentine courts have sole power to judge crimes committed on Argentine territory. Argentina used the same argument last year to reject extradition requests forwarded by Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon.

Human Rights Watch disputed the government's reasoning. "Despite what the government says, the extradition request does not involve any conflict of jurisdiction," Vivanco said. "Astiz is protected by an amnesty law from prosecution in Argentina for the crimes of which he is accused. Many years have gone by since military rule, but the Argentine courts have never tried him."

Astiz is sought in Italy because of his role in the kidnapping of Angela María Aieta, Giovani Pegoraro, and Pegoraro's daughter Susana. Angela María Aieta was abducted from her home on August 5, 1976, and was held at the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), a secret detention center where Astiz worked. A survivor of the ESMA camp has testified that she saw Aieta being taken away, possibly for execution. Giovani and Susana Pegoraro were kidnapped in a railway station on June 18, 1977, when Susana was five months pregnant. None of the three were ever heard of again, but Susana's daughter was later traced and found to be living with a military couple to whom she was handed over after her birth in detention.

Astiz also participated as an undercover agent in the "disappearance" in 1977 of two French nuns, Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet. In 1990 a French court sentenced Astiz in absentia to life imprisonment for this crime.

An estimated 15,000 people "disappeared" during Argentina's military government (1976-1983). The crimes for which both the Italian and French governments are seeking Astiz's extradition are covered by Argentina's 1987 "due obedience" law, which provides immunity from prosecution to all military officers except those in positions of command at the time. Because of this law, charges against Astiz in the case of the two French nuns were dropped in June 1987.

Although Astiz has escaped punishment in Argentina since the end of military rule, there are still two ways in which the Argentine courts could potentially try him. If a judge was willing to declare the due obedience law null and void, Astiz could be charged with the "disappearance" of the Pergoraro family. One judge made such a ruling in March 2001, but Argentina'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 for the theft of Susana Pegoraro's daughter and her transfer to a military family, a type of crime that is not covered by the due obedience law. So far, the judge investigating this case has questioned Astiz, but has not filed charges. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said yesterday that the government had sent details of the Italian extradition request to the court asking it to investigate Astiz's responsibility for this crime.