Page last updated at 03:36 GMT, Wednesday, 1 April 2009 04:36 UK

Obituary: Raul Alfonsin

By Candace Piette
BBC News, Buenos Aires

Argentinian President Raul Alfonsin in office, May 1989
Raul Alfonsin served as Argentina's president for six years

"Thank you" said the posters waved by the crowds of people who gathered at Raul Alfonsin's home in Buenos Aires.

Many carried flowers and pictures of the burly, mustachioed former president who had been Argentina's first democratically elected leader after the end of military rule in 1983.

The military government had collapsed in the wake of Argentina's defeat in the Falklands War a year earlier.

For many of those in the crowds, Raul Alfonsin was a brave and determined man.

He slowly and cautiously dismantled the military's political power structure, signing no pacts or agreements with the military as Spain had done or Chile before.

Against the odds

And he did this against all odds, says Federico Storani, a veteran politician who worked alongside Raul Alfonsin in his government.

"We came out of terrible, bloody dictatorship where democratic sentiments were very fragile," he says.

"I remember a rally in 1982 against military rule in Buenos Aires where thousands of people had gathered.

"Two days later the same square was celebrating military action in the Malvinas [Falklands]."

Raul Alfonsin had no friends among neighbouring countries either. At the time, many of Argentina's neighbours were still under military rule.

A lawyer by profession, he began the process of trying the military for human rights abuses early on in his presidency.

Initially he approached military officers who he believed respected the rule of law and tried to get them involved in the idea of justice for the "disappeared".

"I know this is questionable," says Federico Storani, "but it is not easy hunting lions even if they are in a zoo.

"He was talking to them about grades of responsibility, separating out those who were responsible from those who followed orders."

But when military justice was not forthcoming, Mr Alfonsin turned to the civil courts.

'Volatile time'

He was partially successful, despite the military's resistance and their threats.

By the end of his government, many of the top members of the military had stood trial.

The trials, unprecedented in Latin America, ended in December 1985 with the conviction and imprisonment of five former military rulers, including two ex-presidents.

Four others were acquitted.

It was a bold step in a country where the military had dominated for decades, having taken power in six coups in the course of the 20th Century.

"I think that sometimes I take too many risks because what we did no-one had done before," Mr Alfonsin said later of his decision.

But he said the trials were needed to restore a strong judicial system and break the destructive cycle of political chaos and military coups.

Yet two years after he came to power, he was forced under military pressure to bring in two pieces of legislation which benefitted those who had committed crimes.

The Full Stop law was passed in 1986 and limited civil trials against about 300 officers to those indicted within 60 days of the law's passage.

It was a tall order given the reluctance of many victims and witnesses to testify.

"It was a very volatile time," says Federico Storani, "and it was either that or risk soldiers on the streets again or army mutinies."

Mr Alfonsin also created a commission to try to document the human rights abuses of the military era.

The commission gathered details of almost 9,000 cases of disappearances.

The witness statements are still being used in on-going trials against the military today.

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