Uruguay's congress takes aim at military amnesty

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Posted: May 19, 2011 2:44 AM
Uruguay's congress takes aim at military amnesty

A proposal to annul an amnesty protecting officials from Uruguay's former dictatorship from being prosecuted for crimes against humanity is dividing this politically moderate country ahead of a key vote in Congress.

Memories of the 1973-1985 military government remain fresh here. In two national referendums, Uruguayans have backed the amnesty, but the Supreme Court in 2009 ruled the amnesty unconstitutional and its current center-left ruling coalition is supporting the measure to annul it in Thursday's expected vote by lawmakers.

President Jose "Pepe" Mujica has said he will not veto the measure if it passes the lower house of Congress, but he has raised questions about how the military would respond and warned the head of his "Broad Front" coalition that annulling the amnesty would create "political dangers that may be impossible to overcome."

Mujica _ a leftist former Tupamaro guerrilla who spent the dictatorship behind bars _ has seen his popularity drop recently over his seemingly ambivalent handling of the case.

The issue appears to divide this small country of 3.5 million inhabitants right down the middle.

Uruguay's Senate approved the measure to annul the amnesty by a single vote in April. Both plebiscites to overturn the amnesty failed to win majorities, but got 46 percent support in 1989 and 48 percent support in 2009.

For this week's vote, the ruling coalition has a 50-49 seat majority in the lower house and the measure had appeared likely to pass.

But on Wednesday it all seemed to depend on one man _ Broad Front Deputy Victor Semproni _ who said he will block the annulment measure by refusing to vote.

Mujica's wife, Sen. Lucia Topolansky, warned Semproni that doing so despite the clear wishes of the coalition's leadership would amount to political suicide.

"Don't immolate yourself," she said.

But Semproni told The Associated Press that he's insisting on following the will of the people over his party.

Military veteran groups have denounced the plan to overturn the 1986 amnesty for soldiers while leaving intact a similar amnesty protecting leftist guerrillas.

The twin measures helped a then-fragile democracy rebuild after 12 years of dictatorship. But calls for prosecuting crimes against humanity have increased in recent years.

A peace commission found in 2003 that the dictatorship killed 175 leftist political activists, 26 of them in clandestine torture centers. But abuses were committed by both sides. The Tupamaros began their armed uprising in 1963 against democratically elected governments and were responsible for dozens of killings, kidnappings, robberies, arsons and other attacks before they were defeated a decade later.

Even with the high court's ruling, Uruguay has mostly prosecuted crimes that were beyond the amnesty's scope, such as murders committed outside the country. About a dozen former officials have been imprisoned.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled this year that Uruguay must stop putting up roadblocks to prosecuting crimes against humanity.

Military veterans and officials have been outspoken in opposing the annulment. Since the return of democracy, the military has been firmly under civilian control.

"It's clear now what kind of morality moves our enemies. It's profoundly immoral, antidemocratic," said retired Col. Jose Carlos Araujo, spokesman for the Liberty and Harmony forum of former military officials, following the measure's passage in the Senate. "They don't even respect the decisions of the people."

In a symbolic move, the commanders of all three military branches appeared Wednesday at what is usually a low-key annual memorial for four soldiers who were killed by Tupamaros in 1972.

Mujica appeared at a separate ceremony Wednesday, honoring the battle 200 years ago that led to Uruguay's independence from Spain. He urged Uruguayans to seek their usual political consensus.

"You cannot overcome (problems) with hate," Mujica said. "The only way you can overcome is by being better judges of ourselves and a bit more indulgent with others. We cannot transmit the frustrations of the past to new generations of soldiers."

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AP staff writer Michael Warren contributed to this story from Buenos Aires, Argentina.