An Argentine court on Thursday ordered that six former navy officers accused of torturing and killing dissidents during the 1976-1983 dictatorship be freed on bail, including two of the most notorious suspects.
The ruling sparked outrage among human rights activists who said it reflected the Argentine judicial system's incapacity to effectively try war crimes suspects. But they said the trials would still proceed even if the men are not in prison.
A three-judge panel ruled that the ex-officers' be released on bail because their trials had taken too long, with the men spending more than five years in detention without a verdict. Among those affected is Alfredo Astiz, the so-called Angel of Death accused in the disappearance of two French nuns and the founder of the famed human rights group, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
Also to be released on bail is Jorge Acosta, who was convicted in absentia in Italy for the killings of three Italians during the military crackdown on leftist dissidents that became known as Argentina's "dirty war."
The ruling brings "shame upon Argentina, humanity and also our judicial system," said President Cristina Fernandez, who has made human rights a pillar of her administration.
Fernandez made the comments at the ex-detention center known as the Navy Mechanics School, where Astiz and Acosta allegedly orchestrated the torture and death of hundreds of the estimated 5,000 dissidents who passed through its halls.
'Atrocious and horrible'
The ruling was a blow to efforts to try suspected human rights abusers, but activists cautioned that it was not a landmark decision since the six former navy officers are still on trial.
"Their crimes are still as atrocious and horrible if they're sitting at a cafe in Buenos Aires or sitting in jail since they're being charged with the most serious offenses that took place in the darkest period of recent Argentine history," said Tamara Taraciuk, Argentina expert for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Activists said it wasn't clear when the six men would be released since other judges still have to sign off on the paperwork. The men must also post bail, the size of which has yet to be decided.
The conditions of their release also have yet to be determined.
Prosecutor Raul Plee said he would appeal the case, according to local media.
The judges wrote in the ruling seen by The Associated Press that five of the former officers have been held in pretrial detention since Sept. 16, 2003 and Acosta since Aug. 16, 2001 — well past the three-year legal limit.
Defendants cannot be held awaiting trial "indefinitely" even though the evidence that led to their the detentions is still valid, the judges wrote.
"The law must be respected, even though it can produce results that we don't agree with," said Gregorio Badeni, a constitutional law expert in Buenos Aires.
'These were sinister people'
Human rights activists for the most part acknowledged that the trials had extended beyond legal time limits, but said the ruling highlights a slow-moving court system that doesn't bring the guilty to justice.
"The decision is extremely grave," said Gaston Chillier, director of the Buenos Aires-based Center for Legal and Social Studies. "It reflects the incapacity and inefficiency of the Argentine justice system to try crimes against humanity in a reasonable time."
Chillier and other activists point to a judicial system that gives the same priority to crimes committed during Argentina's military dictatorship as to petty theft, judges swayed by their own political leanings and courts that are understaffed and underfunded.
"These were sinister people," Chillier said. "They controlled the life and death of people in the most paradigmatic detention center in Argentina and this heightens the sensation of impunity" of the torture and murder that happened 30 years ago.
Disappearances and kidnappings
Astiz is accused in the 1977 disappearance of French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet and a dozen other people, including Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo founder Azucena Villaflor.
At least 14 former state security agents and their civilian allies have been found guilty of human rights crimes, including forced disappearances and kidnapping. Another 358 are awaiting trial, according to the Center for Legal and Social Studies.
Official records put the number of disappeared at 13,000, while human rights groups say 30,000 were killed.