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Criminal charges filed against a former Uruguayan president for killings committed under military rule represent an important step toward establishing responsibility for gross human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.

Uruguayan prosecutor Mirtha Guianze on Tuesday filed charges of “aggravated homicide” against former de facto president Juan María Bordaberry and his foreign minister, Juan Carlos Blanco. She asked a judge to order their arrest.

“For far too long Uruguay has drawn a veil over the crimes committed during military rule,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “But now the Uruguayan authorities have taken a welcome step toward ensuring accountability for grave abuses.”

The charges against Bordaberry and Blanco, now under review by a judge, are for the murders of the Chamber of Deputies leader Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz; Senator Zelmar Michelini; and two suspected members of the Tupamaro guerrilla group, William Whitelaw and Rosario Barredo.

On May 19, 1976, army commandos abducted the exiled politicians Gutiérrez and Michelini from their homes in Buenos Aires, where they had sought refuge from the Uruguayan dictatorship. Their bullet-riddled bodies were found in Buenos Aires with those of the suspected Tupamaros two days later.

The killings, particularly notorious in Uruguay because of the popularity of the two leaders, are believed to have been part of Operation Condor, a secret plan by the region’s military dictatorships to kidnap and “disappear” exiled dissidents.

Bordaberry was elected president of Uruguay in 1972 and the following year dissolved Congress, banned political parties, and suppressed civil liberties. He was deposed by the armed forces in 1976. Uruguay remained under military rule until 1985. Thousands of political opponents of the dictatorship were tortured and imprisoned under appalling conditions.

Because of an amnesty law promulgated in December 1986 and ratified in a public referendum in April 1989, no one has been brought to justice for these crimes.

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