Argentina probes pre-Dirty War rights crimes

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Argentina is digging deeper into its past political violence, as judges extend human rights investigations back to the early 1970s when death squads targeted leftists before the country's notorious "Dirty War."

Federal Judge Norberto Oyarbide reopened a long-dormant probe into the Argentine Anti-communist Alliance, arguing the statute of limitations did not apply because the group, known as the Triple A, had committed crimes against humanity.

Oyarbide also ordered the arrest of two suspected members of the Triple A -- which rights groups say murdered or abducted up to 2,000 people before the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, when between 11,000 and 30,000 leftist dissidents were killed.

The move relates to a broader drive to prosecute rights abuses during military rule after amnesty laws were overturned in 2005, with center-left President Nestor Kirchner's strong backing.

"This is the way the political winds have been blowing in Argentina," said political analyst Felipe Noguera. "Some members of this government feel that revisiting the 1970s and 1980s, the Dirty War and (rights) trials and pardons, is very important."

The Triple A was a clandestine group that operated during the 1974-1976 democratic rule of President Maria Estela Martinez de Peron, better known as Isabel, the widow and successor of Argentine political icon Juan Domingo Peron.

The squad targeted politicians, journalists and members of leftist guerrilla movements such as the Montoneros and the Popular Revolutionary Army.

The man accused of being the political architect of the Triple A was Isabel Peron's social welfare minister, Jose Lopez Rega, who was known as "the sorcerer" for his reported spiritual leanings.

Lopez Rega died in 1989 after being charged as the Triple A's ringleader, but officials dropped the investigation into the group until Oyarbide reopened the case last month.

The judge secured the arrest in Spain of one of Lopez Rega's former bodyguards, Rodolfo Almiron, pending an extradition request. And this week, he ordered house arrest for another former security aide, Juan Ramon Morales, who faces possible murder and kidnap charges at age 88.

"It's about time they revisit what happened during the democratic government of Isabel Peron, where state terrorism began," said Taty Almeida, a member of rights group Madres de Plaza de Mayo whose son was kidnapped and presumably killed in 1975.


A three-time president, Peron and his hugely popular second wife Eva, known as "Evita," appealed to people across the political spectrum until his movement fractured in the 1970s.

Peron's triumphal return to Argentina from exile in 1973 turned into a blood bath between rival supporters waiting to greet him. He ultimately allied himself with his party's right wing, sending leftist groups underground.

Those divisions still plague the party. In 2003, the Peronists fielded three candidates in the presidential vote, with Kirchner winning the contest.

Isabel, Peron's third wife, was perceived by many as incapable of taming the political violence that had seized the South American country.

Oyarbide told reporters she could be summoned for questioning on the Triple A. The former leader resides in Spain.

"It is likely that Isabel Martinez de Peron knew very little and that has to do with her personal and institutional weakness," said political analyst Ricardo Rouvier.

"But if the Triple A is investigated fully, some Peronists are going to be implicated," he added. "Some union leaders turned in their own members, deepening the ferocious fighting within the Peronist party." (Additional reporting by Damian Wroclavsky)