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Tuesday, January 19, 1999 Published at 03:47 GMT

World: Americas

Dealing with dictators

Justice in Buenos Aires had stood still for 15 years - until Pinochet

By John Simpson, World Affairs Editor

Nowadays Argentina is more stable and more at ease with itself, than at any time in the past quarter-century. Even so, there is unfinished business here. This country is only now starting to face up to its terrible, brutal past.

In March 1976 the military seized power and began the systematic destruction of moderate and left-wing dissent. Maybe 14,000 people were murdered.

John Simpson reports for BBC television's Newsnight on the human impact of Argentina's troubled past and the 'disappeared'
General Jorge Videla, the leader of the junta, has now been brought to court again. Having served a brief and comfortable sentence in the 80s, he must have thought he was safe.

But the Spanish judge, Balthazar Garzon - the same man who is behind the effort to extradite General Pinochet of Chile, applied for his arrest and that of several other leading figures. The Argentine courts followed suit.

[ image:  ]
Uki Goni, author of 'Peron and the Nazis' says Spanish action has woken up Argentina:

"The arrest warrants issued by Garzon were a slap in the face to the Argentine government which has based its policy around appeasment and pardons to the top military. I don't think we would be seeing the arrests if it hadn't been for the warrants issued by Spain. "

Lying in wait for Galtieri

In a modest flat in a middle-middle-class suburb of Buenos Aires lives former Argentinian dictator General Galtieri.

I called on him to ask about the old days, but he was not in. So I waited.

[ image: General Galtieri faces an international warrant for his arrest on human rights abuses.]
General Galtieri faces an international warrant for his arrest on human rights abuses.
It was not until evening that General Galtieri came home in his battered old car: the rumour is his money problems are due to drink. But he was not keen to talk about the international warrant that is out against him, not for the Falklands War, but for human rights offences.

Fifteen years - then Pinochet

I first came to Buenos Aires in 1983 when the military dictatorship was on its last legs and people were just starting to confront the terrible events they had been through.

Then, as now, the same names were all over the front pages: those who gave orders to torture and murder and those who carried the orders out. Not much has been done in 15 years since then to deal with the problem at a fundamental level.

[ image: John Simpson revisiting a painful past]
John Simpson revisiting a painful past
Real justice seemed as far away as ever - and then the Pinochet case electrified everybody here and showed that it was not necessarily true that the big names would always get protection.

But what if the attention given to the big names diverts attention from those further down the scale? The people who were in daily control of the torturers and murderers.

One voice - silenced

Across Buenos Aires is the neat, pleasant building of the Naval Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, known from its Spanish initials as Esma.

[ image: The Esma building saw thousands of mothers killed after giving birth]
The Esma building saw thousands of mothers killed after giving birth
The building saw some of the worst atrocities of the military dictatorship: thousands of people were executed or tortured to death. There were very few survivors.

Those cases were pretty much closed by the amnesty granted in 1989. They were not ongoing crimes.

Esma was the place women prisoners were brought to have their children. The mothers were murdered and the babies given to military families who wanted them. Those crimes are not over. They are effects are still felt, day by day.

The most notorious case

Cecilia Vinas would be in her forties now. But after growing up in the seaside town of Mar del Plata she worked in a trade union office, which was enough to make her a target for the military death squads.

She and her husband were arrested in 1977; he was murdered at once, but because she was pregnant she was allowed to give birth to her child at Esma.

[ image: Cecilia Vinas' case - and her lost son - is one of the most notorious]
Cecilia Vinas' case - and her lost son - is one of the most notorious
People there remembered her well, because she was so beautiful. The story of what happened to Cecilia and her child, is the most notorious of all the kidnapping and murder cases.

Her family thought her dead but in 1983, six years after being kidnapped, she made the first of a series of phone calls to her family. She was still a prisoner, even though the military dictatorship was now over.

Until she spoke to her mother, she thought her child had been handed over to the family by her military captors. It shattered her to know her son could not be found - and that was the last her family heard.

In the 14 years since then the family have publicised the case tirelessly.

A new identity

Now Cecilia's son, who is called Javier, is 21. He grew up thinking he was the son of Captain Jorge Vildosa, who operated out of Esma, and was in fact his kidnapper.

[ image:  ]
Javier was certain he was Vildosa's son. When, he came across a reference to himself on the Internet six months ago which had been posted by Cecilia's human rights group, he insisted on having a DNA test to prove who his father was.

Instead, of course, it proved that he was Cecilia's grandson. Then, nervously, he made contact with his real family.

The young man who had once been so certain who he was was now caught between two families. He had discovered that the man who brought him up was a kidnapper, and perhaps a murderer.

Defending the indefensible

It is difficult to imagine what men such as Jorge Vildosa and General Galtieri think about the bad old days.

Pedro Bianci, a lawyer who represented many of Junta, says he does not think the men responsible for these crimes feel guilty:

"My personal opinon? I don't think so. I think they are convinced they did the right thing."

[ image: Cecilia's mother has made hesitant contact with her grandson after 20 years of searching]
Cecilia's mother has made hesitant contact with her grandson after 20 years of searching
How can the murder of women and children be right, I asked:

"It was a very difficult time for Argentina. None of you lived through it, you weren't here. I lived it. I don't agree with the methods used but I do agree that we had to defeat subversion."

If there is no real justice, will not these resentments come to the surface again?

"That is the European mentality. We go along with guilty people being judged and sentenced. There is no desire for a person to spend the rest of his life in jail. Society's condemnation is enough, that society finds him guilty is enough."

These arrests we are seeing now of very old men who can serve their sentences at home seem to be more for show than to contain any real threat.

We can stick Massera in jail, Vidella in jail or Galtieri might even go to jail.

But it still seems unlikely that the men who delivered the babies and the people who today are between 40 and 50, colonels and captains, will ever be prosecuted for the crimes they have committed.

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