(Washington, DC) - The arrest Thursday of former Argentine military leader Leopoldo Galtieri for grave human rights abuses during Argentina’s military dictatorship is a significant victory for accountability, Human Rights Watch said today. An arrest order has been also issued for former army chief Gen. Cristino Nicolaides and former Gen. Carlos Suلrez Mason, both of whom are already under house arrest on other human rights charges.

Federal judge Claudio Bonadيo has concluded that Galtieri, Nicolaides and Suلrez shared responsibility for the “disappearance” in 1979 and 1980 of eighteen members of the Montoneros guerrilla group, who had returned, or were planning to return, to Argentina. He has also ordered the arrest of about forty lower level police and army agents, most of them attached to the army’s 601st Batallion, a unit responsible for overseas intelligence operations.

“Bonadio’s ruling is an extremely important one,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division. “Nearly two decades have passed since the Argentine military junta left power; these prosecutions are way overdue.”

The success of these ongoing human rights prosecutions now depends on the Argentine Supreme Court, which must confirm the nullification of Argentina’s amnesty laws.

Judge Bonadيo is one of two Argentine judges who have ruled that Argentina’s amnesty laws (the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws, passed in 1986 and 1987) are unconstitutional and violate international norms. In November 2001, the Federal Appeals Court of Buenos Aires upheld the invalidation of the amnesties, but the Supreme Court has still to rule on this issue.

“Bonadيo’s ruling gives added impetus to the courts’ efforts to nullify amnesty laws that violate Argentina’s international human rights obligations and stand in the way of human rights prosecutions,” said Vivanco.

An estimated 15,000 people “disappeared” when Argentina was under military rule from 1976 to 1982. Galtieri, who presided Argentina’s military junta from 1981-1982, was commander of the army’s First Corps at the time of the “disappearance” of the Montoneros.

Convicted by an army court for “negligence” in the wake of Argentina’s defeat in the war with Britain over the Falklands (Malvinas) islands, Galtieri was pardoned by President Carlos Menem in 1989. He was also charged and acquitted of other human rights crimes in trials held under the government of Raúl Alfonsín.