(New York) - Argentina's Supreme Court should resist army pressure and respect Argentina's human rights treaty obligations in a key decision expected soon on the constitutionality of the country's amnesty laws, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the chief justice. These laws have blocked most prosecutions for human rights abuses during military rule in Argentina, when an estimated 15,000 people "disappeared."

Among those implicated in on-going human rights investigations is Gen. Ricardo Brinzoni, currently the chief-of-staff of Argentina's army.  

Enacted in 1986 and 1987 to appease army unrest provoked by human rights trials,  
 
Argentina's "full-stop" and "due obedience" laws prevent courts from punishing those responsible for gross violations of human rights committed between 1976 and 1983, when Argentina was under military rule. Lower courts have challenged the laws, and the matter is now before the country's nine-member Supreme Court.  
 
The laws were reportedly the sole topic in a meeting held last month between seven Supreme Court justices and army bishop Antonio Juan Baseotto. According to Supreme Court sources reported in the newspaper La Nación, Monsignor Baseotto argued that ratifying the amnesty laws would help national reconciliation. One of the justices, Adolfo Vázquez, reportedly assured the bishop that the court would soon rule the laws constitutional, thus ensuring impunity for human rights crimes.  
 
In his letter to Chief Justice Julio Nazareno, José Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, said that Vázquez's remarks in advance of the ruling were "absolutely impermissible."  
 
"The case before the Supreme Court is of the utmost importance, indeed it is crucial to the future of Argentine democracy," Vivanco noted. "The court must reaffirm the right to justice, a right enshrined in human right treaties to which Argentina is a party and which has the status of constitutional law in Argentina."  
 
Lower courts have challenged the amnesty laws repeatedly. In a landmark decision, on March 6, 2001, federal judge Gabriel Cavallo ruled that the amnesty laws were unconstitutional. Another federal judge issued a similar ruling the following October. The Federal Court of Buenos Aires unanimously confirmed both decisions, prompting a final appeal to the Supreme Court by former officers accused of torture and enforced disappearances.  
 
In August 2002, Attorney General Nicolás Becerra recommended that the Supreme Court endorse the Federal Court of Buenos Aires decision.  
 
On March 7, 2003, judge Carlos Skidelsky, who is investigating the December 1976 killing of twenty-two political prisoners in Margarita Belén, Chaco province, became the third federal judge to strike down the amnesty laws. One of those who could face prosecution for this crime is the current chief-of-staff of the Argentine army, Gen. Ricardo Brinzoni, who was secretary general of the Chaco provincial government at the time of the massacre.  
 
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has stated repeatedly that amnesties applied to gross violations of human rights are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, established under the American Convention on Human Rights, gave a similar ruling in 2001. Argentina has ratified both the ICCPR and the American Convention on Human Rights.