(Buenos Aires) - The Argentine Government must support court efforts to bring justice for the massive human rights abuses committed under military rule, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

While the country's courts have made notable progress in reinvigorating long-stalled prosecutions of the perpetrators of "dirty war" crimes, high-level officials of the Argentine government have been reluctant to support the reopening of human rights trials.

Argentina was racked by left wing and government-backed right wing terror in the early 1970s. After the armed forces took power in a March 1976 coup, military and police kidnapped at least 14,000 suspected leftists, tortured them in secret detention centers, executed them, and disposed of their bodies in secrecy. Although two amnesty laws passed in 1986 and 1987 protected most of the perpetrators from criminal prosecution, an Argentine appellate court has just struck down these laws.

"For years, many relatives of the victims have chafed at the impossibility of obtaining justice," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division. "Now that the crimes committed during those years may finally be prosecuted, the government must fulfill its responsibility to ensure justice."

On November 9, the Federal Court of Buenos Aires invalidated the country's longstanding amnesty laws. The court ruled unanimously that the "full stop" and "due obedience" laws, introduced by the elected government of Raúl Alfonsín in 1986 and 1987 to appease military anger at human rights prosecutions, were unconstitutional and violated international norms. "To do justice is not an option, but an obligation," the court affirmed.

The 45-page report, "Reluctant Partner: The Argentine Government's Failure to Back Trials of Human Rights Violators," traces the history of the ruling back to 1995, when dramatic revelations about "death flights" (in which drugged political detainees were dropped from planes into the Atlantic) spurred local human rights groups to fight for justice in the courts. One such group, the Center for Legal and Social Studies, brought a case involving the "disappearance" of a Chilean-Argentine couple that reached the court of Federal Judge Gabriel Cavallo.

On March 6, 2001, ruling in the couple's case, Judge Cavallo declared the amnesty laws unconstitutional and without legal effect. It was this landmark decision that the Federal Court of Buenos Aires upheld in November.

The Argentine Supreme Court is expected to hear an appeal next year against the Federal Court ruling lodged by two former police agents accused in the case. If the court rejects the appeal, the door will be open to further human rights prosecutions.

Officially, the government remains aloof from the process unfolding in the courts, but cabinet ministers have expressed disagreement with the Cavallo ruling in press interviews. Moreover, during 2001, the ministers of foreign relations and of defense have rejected extradition requests from Italy, France, Spain, and Germany for crimes committed in Argentina against citizens of those countries, asserting that only Argentina has the right to try those responsible for crimes committed on its territory.

Defense Minister Horacio Jaunarena, who signed an order on November 16 rejecting a request by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón for the extradition of eighteen Argentines, has referred the cases to the attorney general for further investigation.

"The government must now use all the legal and political resources at its disposal to prosecute these cases," said Vivanco. "It would be unacceptable for it to deny extradition requests and at the same time defend laws that prevent its own courts from doing justice."

The Human Rights Watch report describes how accountability for "dirty war" crimes is long overdue. After the military junta fell in 1983, the Federal Court of Buenos Aires convicted five of its leaders for homicide, torture, and illegal arrest, but President Carlos Menem pardoned all of them in 1990, ostensibly as a reconciliation measure. In January 1998, the Argentine Congress repealed the amnesty laws, but because the repeal did not have retroactive effect it did not allow the reopening of cases that the courts had closed.

Due to the amnesty laws, all the officers responsible for torture and "disappearances" have enjoyed immunity from prosecution since 1987. Since then, the armed forces have continued to insist that all records of the "disappeared" were destroyed when the junta left power.