BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Argentina's Supreme Court overturned two amnesty laws yesterday that prevented the prosecution of hundreds of military officers, soldiers and police linked to the country's "Dirty War," in which thousands of people were killed in the 1970s and 1980s.
The ruling paves the way for the revival of hundreds of prosecutions and civil suits that had been dropped for nearly two decades, legal experts and government officials said. Government sources and human rights activists said new charges naming as many as 300 defendants - most of them retired military and police officers - could be filed in the coming weeks.
In a 7-1 decision, the court declared unconstitutional two laws that allowed all but a handful of those charged with killing or "disappearing" 12,000 to 30,000 people between 1976 and 1983 to escape prosecution.
President Nestor Kirchner, who helped to make the ruling possible by recently replacing several members of the Supreme Court, said the jurists "have given our country a ruling that renews our faith in the system of justice."
"They have declared unconstitutional [laws] that filled us with shame," Kirchner said.
Until recently, the court had been dominated by allies of former President Carlos Menem, who had bowed to military pressure to keep the amnesty laws in place. In the late 1980s, Argentine military officers mutinied twice to stop efforts to prosecute them for alleged crimes. Most of the mid-level and high ranking military officers who oversaw the operations of the Dirty War have retired.
Hours before the judgment was delivered, Defense Minister Jose Pampuro said that some members of the armed forces were apprehensive about the possibility of being prosecuted.
After the ruling was announced, armed forces chief Gen. Roberto Bendini said he welcomed the decision. "Those accused will be prosecuted and found guilty - or not guilty," he said.
Although many of the top members of the military junta were prosecuted, convicted and sentenced in the mid-1980s before the amnesty laws were approved, some now face charges filed a few years ago when both sides awaited the Supreme Court ruling on whether the legislation was valid.
Junta members Adm. Emilio Massera and Gen. Jorge Videla could face new trials, along with mid-ranking officers such as former Navy Capt. Alfredo Astiz, known as "the Blond Angel." He is charged in the kidnapping of several members of a mothers group that pressed the government to reveal the fate of missing loved ones.
Human rights groups applauded yesterday's ruling.
"The crimes of the Dirty War are far too serious to be amnestied and forgotten," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "The era of sweetheart deals for the military, extracted at gunpoint from democratic leaders, is over."
No one is certain how many people were killed in Argentina's Dirty War against leftist militants, dissidents and intellectuals in the years after a 1975 military coup.
Estela Carlotto, president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women with "disappeared" children and grandchildren, said the verdict was the culmination of her decades-long struggle that began during the dictatorship when a small group of parents marched in Buenos Aires, demanding to know the fate of loved ones.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.