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Argentine judges reopen cases against military
( 2003-09-02 10:20) (Agencies)

Argentine judges reopened old human rights cases against about 80 former military officers on Monday, the latest challenge to amnesty laws that have shielded them from past prosecution.

The renewed probes into crimes under 1976-83 military rule came on the same day a judge ordered a group of officials -- including ex-naval Capt. Alfredo Astiz, known as the "blond angel of death" -- freed from jail after a failed attempt to extradite them to Spain.

Legal analysts said the seemingly contradictory decisions reflected confusion over the status of two 1980s-era amnesty laws that have blocked attempts to prosecute officers from the former military government, accused of killing up to 30,000 people.

Congress voted to overturn the amnesties two weeks ago. But most analysts believe only the Supreme Court can definitively declare the laws void and pave the way for new trials.

Highlighting the legal confusion, the new cases will include Astiz, perhaps the best-known face of Argentine repression, sentenced by French courts in absentia to life imprisonment in 1990 for in the murder of two French nuns.

"This is chaos," said Gregorio Badeni, a constitutional lawyer. "Until the Supreme Court makes a ruling, there will be great confusion. You're going to have different courts making different interpretations of the amnesty laws."

A court official said one of the probes would cover crimes committed at the Navy Mechanics' School in Buenos Aires, one of the military's most infamous torture centers. Another would investigate abuses committed by the army.

Separately, an Argentine judge ordered the release of most of the 40 men who had been under arrest for over a month awaiting possible extradition to Spain.

It was a widely anticipated step after the Spanish government decided on Friday not to request their extradition, anticipating they would be tried in Argentina. But human rights groups condemned the Argentine court ruling.

"It would be really regrettable if these people responsible for genocide stay free ... we won the annulment of the amnesty laws so therefore they should not be freed," said Tati Almeida of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, which represents relatives of "disappeared" Argentines.

But some of the men will remain under arrest, awaiting possible trials on other rights charges.

Efforts to prosecute Argentina's past human rights abuses have been re-energized under President Nestor Kirchner, who took office on May 25 promising to battle corruption and "an end to impunity" in the South American country.

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