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(Washington DC) - The Argentine Chamber of Deputies' vote to annul two laws that shielded the military from prosecution for past human rights violations sets a welcome and historic precedent for Latin America, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Argentina has decided that those who participated in the massive human rights violations under military rule should finally be held accountable,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. “Tuesday’s vote shows that in a democracy, laws that shield from justice those responsible for atrocities cannot survive forever.”

The Argentine Chamber of Deputies voted to annul the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws just before midnight Tuesday. The Full Stop Law prevented the hearing of cases filed with the courts after a deadline of 60 days. The Due Obedience Law granted automatic immunity to all members of the military except those in positions of command.

The chamber also voted by an overwhelming majority to give constitutional status to the U.N. Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, which Argentina had ratified Monday. And it passed a bill to amend national legislation barring impunity for this type of crime.

The bills now move to the Senate, which is expected to ratify them.

An estimated 15,000 people “disappeared” when Argentina was under military rule from 1976 to 1983.

The “impunity laws,” as the two laws are known in Argentina, were rushed through Congress in 1986 and 1987 by the government of Raúl Alfonsín in order to quell a military rebellion by officers angered at human rights trials. The only crime they could be prosecuted for was baby snatching; the theft of babies born to mothers held in secret detention and subsequently killed was considered too abhorrent to absolve.

During the 1990s human rights groups campaigned and litigated to ensure that judicial investigations into “disappearances” and other human rights crimes continued, even though prosecution was barred.

Federal judges declared the laws unconstitutional in 2001, and the rulings have been appealed up to the Supreme Court.

Since he took office on May 25, President Néstor Kirchner has insisted that those who violated human rights during military rule should be held accountable. On July 25, he repealed a decree that prevented the extradition of Argentines to stand trial in other countries. That clears the way for Spain to proceed with plans to seek the extradition of 45 former members of the Argentine security forces and one civilian for human rights violations.

"Tuesday’s vote brings the trial in Argentina of perpetrators of gross human rights abuses a step closer,” Vivanco said.

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