IMAGE: Isabel Peron
AP
Former Argentine President Isabel Peron, center, leaves Spain's National Court in Madrid on Friday.
updated 1/12/2007 6:40:48 PM ET 2007-01-12T23:40:48

Spanish police detained Argentine ex-President Isabel Peron, who allegedly approved the shadowy right-wing death squads that ushered her nation into a bloody dictatorship, but she was released three hours later after appearing at a court Friday.

Spanish police detained her in Madrid at the request of an Argentine investigative judge. The move suggests that the South American nation is finally ready to examine the origins of the state-sponsored terrorism responsible for thousands of deaths in the 1970s and 1980s.

Argentina has 40 days to file an extradition request, according to a court statement issued to reporters waiting outside. Peron is required to appear at a police station every 15 days, it said.

Peron married strongman Juan Domingo Peron several years after the death of his second wife, the iconic Argentine first lady Eva Peron. She became president when he died and has lived in quiet exile in Madrid in the decades since her ouster in a 1976 military coup.

Isabel Peron, now 75, had no comment as she was driven Friday from her villa in the wealthy Villanueva de la Canada neighborhood to Spain's National Court, where Judge Juan del Olmo is in charge of the case.

Many human rights activists say Argentina's "dirty war" really began with Peron and her once-powerful inner circle, whose October 1975 decrees called on the armed forces to "annihilate" people deemed to be "subversive elements."

Testified she didn't remember details
Testifying as a witness in a 1997 Spanish case, she said she recalled approving the decrees but didn't remember details and was unaware of any abuses during her presidency.

While Argentina's justice system has documented thousands of cases of human rights abuses committed under the 1976-1983 dictatorship, investigative judges have generally avoided looking into atrocities that occurred before the military coup.

Federal Judge Raul Acosta, who ordered Peron's arrest, reflected this new initiative when he signaled that not even the former president was untouchable.

"I don't care one bit who she is. For me, she's just one more citizen," Acosta was quoted as telling Argentine newspaper Clarin for Friday's editions.

Specifically, he ordered Peron _ whose full name is Maria Estela Martinez de Peron _ held for questioning in the disappearance of 24-year-old Hector Aldo Fagetti Gallego, one month before she was ousted in the coup.

A separate probe by Federal Judge Norberto Oyarbide also focuses on the once-feared Argentine Anti-communist Alliance, a death squad blamed for at least 1,500 killings of government opponents from 1973-1976. The dead included leftists, trade activists, opposition lawmakers and intellectuals.

Some victims were abducted off the street and never again seen. Others were found dead of bullet wounds, some with their hands hacked off or charred.

The violence set the stage for the dirty war under 1976-1983 military rule, in which nearly 13,000 people are officially listed as dead or missing. Human rights groups say the total is closer to 30,000.

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, a leftist lawyer who was twice detained during Peron's presidency, backed the Supreme Court's decision to scrap amnesty laws in 2005 and has been outspoken since then in demanding a full accounting for dirty war crimes.

‘We want reconciliation, but with truth’
"We want reconciliation, but with truth and without impunity. That's why we need to know the truth," Kirchner told Clarin. "If the judges believe there was state terrorism before the 1976 military coup, then those responsible need to be tried."

In Argentina, families of the victims celebrating the arrest included Maria Adela Antokoletz, whose brother was kidnapped shortly after the coup because he was a lawyer who defended leftists.

"I believe state terror began before the coup," she said. "Those who signed these decrees knew perfectly well the nature of the campaign and what this repression would involve."

Peron's defenders say she could not possibly have anticipated the killings of hundreds of leftists and unionists her administration set in motion, let alone the military coup that expanded the terror to a full-scale dirty war.

Many also see political motivations in the latest probes, since left-leaning Kirchner has made human rights a priority.

Argentine Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, honored in 1980 for his human rights work, says Peron's arrest shows "new maturity" in a justice system long scorned for lack of progress in human rights cases.

"Once and for all, we have to get to the bottom of this problem and find out how this terrorism was generated by the state," Perez Esquivel said. "The search for the truth must go in every direction."

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