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The BBC's James Reynolds
"A court ruling that may change the way Argentina deals with its recent past
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Thursday, 8 March, 2001, 14:16 GMT
Latin America's military soul searching
Pinochet protest
Vicitms' families have pressed for justice - this protest was aimed at former Chilean ruler Augusto Pinochet
As Latin American countries begin to re-examine the human rights abuses committed by former military governments, the BBC's Latin American analyst Nick Caistor reviews the decades of terror tactics.

In the 1970s and 1980s, much of Latin America was ruled by military governments. These governments faced opposition from armed revolutionary groups, who were often powerful and well-armed.

The military rulers in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and Peru decided that the only way to defeat these groups was by eliminating them.

So instead of bringing people suspected of "subversion" or "terrorism" to trial, the armed forces made it a policy to kidnap any suspects, torture them for information, and then kill them.

Graves of
Human rights groups say 30,000 people were killed in Argentina
In Argentina at least 9,000 people are thought to have been killed in this way - several thousand more died in similar circumstances in Chile.

In Guatemala and Peru, where the anti-subversion campaigns took place in remote country areas, many more people died.

When these military regimes gave way to civilian governments, one of their final acts was to declare an amnesty for all members of the armed forces who had been involved in what in this kind of "dirty war", as it became known in Argentina.

'Carrying out orders'

It was argued that the most senior military personnel should not be held accountable for their actions because they believed they had been fighting a war to save their countries.

Chile's General Pinochet, for example, always maintained he was proud of having "defeated communism" in his country.

Other military personnel were absolved from responsibility by the argument that they had simply been carrying out orders.

General Pinochet
General Pinochet still faces possible trial
Although the leaders of the military juntas in Argentina were tried for human rights abuses, they were pardoned shortly afterwards.

In the other countries, the amnesties declared by the military were respected by the incoming civilian authorities.

But the arrest of General Pinochet in London in 1998, and the historic ruling that he could not claim immunity as head of state, gave fresh hope to those in Latin America who wanted to reopen the cases of human rights' abuses by the armed forces in their countries.

In Argentina, a judge has now ruled that two immunity laws protecting military officers from prosecution are unconstitutional.

Truth commission

In Chile, lawyers are close to bringing General Pinochet to trial on charges of kidnapping and murder.

In Guatemala, the Supreme Court has stripped the former military ruler General Rios Montt of his parliamentary immunity, possibly opening the way for him to be charged with genocide against the country¿s indigenous inhabitants when he was in power in the early 1980s.

A new government in Peru is to set up a Truth Commission to investigate the thousands of deaths that occurred there during the years of violence in the past two decades.

By killing their opponents rather than trying and imprisoning them, the military rulers of Latin America thought they were getting rid of the problem once and for all.

A generation later, thanks to the persistent efforts of many people - relatives of those killed, human rights lawyers, and politicians - it seems that these cynical attempts to justify official murder and other outrages may at last be successfully challenged.

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See also:

07 Mar 01 | Americas
Guatemala steps out of military past
19 Aug 98 | Crossing Continents
The Living Disappeared
12 Feb 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
Argentina's missing babies
13 Feb 01 | Americas
Chile court hears Pinochet appeal
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