Uruguay's Congress upholds military amnesty

By RAUL O. GARCES | May 20, 2011 | 9:30 AM EDT

People, holding up signs that reads in Spanish "Annul the amnesty right now!!," demonstrate in front of the Congress in Montevideo, Uruguay, Thursday, May 19, 2011. The Chamber of Deputies is discussing a law to overturn an amnesty for human rights crimes by the military during Uruguay's 1973-85 dictatorship. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — A proposal to overturn an amnesty for officials from Uruguay's former dictatorship fell one vote short in the country's Congress on Friday after a bitter debate that reopened divisions from the 1973-1985 military government.

The ruling center-left Broad Front party had pushed to overturn the amnesty for soldiers, but one of its congressmen abstained, leaving it one vote short of a majority in the 99-seat legislature.

Hundreds of leftist activists ringed the Congress building to demand an end to the amnesty which had protected soldiers from prosecution for kidnappings, killings and other abuses committed by the dictatorship.

Veterans groups, meanwhile, were rankled by the fact that the measure would have left intact a similar amnesty for Marxist guerrillas who fought both the dictatorship and the elected civilian governments that preceded it.

The amnesties were meant to help Uruguayans reconcile after a long period of conflict, and before the vote, Mujica, himself a former rebel, raised questions about how the military might respond. He warned that scrapping the amnesty would create "political dangers that may be impossible to overcome."

The Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the amnesty was unconstitutional and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled this year that Uruguay must remove roadblocks to prosecuting crimes against humanity.

Human rights groups argue the official amnesty allows government crimes to go unpunished, and Broad Front members say that the government's "dirty war" continued long after the Tupamaro guerrillas had been defeated.

The issue has divided this small country of 3.5 million people almost down the middle.

Uruguay's Senate approved the measure to annul the amnesty by a single vote in April. Two popular plebiscites to overturn the amnesty failed to win majorities, but by thin margins. Forty-six percent voted to overturn the amnesty in 1989 and and 48 percent voted for the measure in 2009.

A peace commission found in 2003 that the dictatorship killed 175 leftist political activists, 26 of them in clandestine torture centers.

But the Tupamaros also committed killings, kidnappings, robberies and other attacks after taking up arms in 1963 against democratically elected governments. They were defeated a decade later.

Leftist activists on Friday commemorated those who died under the dictatorship. The day marks the anniversary of the 1976 murder of two Uruguayan congressmen who were killed while in exile in Argentina after a military government seized power there and cooperated with the soldiers running Uruguay in attacking leftists.