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Missing 'dirty war' witness case stumps Argentina

Written by: Staff

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, Oct 28: Thirty years ago Jorge Julio Lopez was kidnapped and tortured under Argentina's dictatorship. Last month he vanished again at the end of a human rights trial in which he was a key witness, and the government's efforts to find him have turned up little.

Lopez testified in the case against former police commissioner Miguel Etchecolatz, who was sentenced to life in prison in September for crimes committed during Argentina's 1976-1983 ''dirty war.'' His disappearance has stirred up memories of the dictatorship, leading to fears for other witnesses' safety, and the nationwide search for the 77-year-old mason has degenerated into political finger-pointing.

''There's nothing to say right now because there's no news,'' said Ruben Lopez, one of the missing witness' sons, admitting his family was anguished over the lack of leads.

Rights activists yesterday planned to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Lopez's kidnapping on October 27, 1976, demanding the center-left government do more to find him.

Buenos Aires Gov Felipe Sola this week doubled the amount of reward money for information on Lopez to 128,000 dollar. Provincial police and the national intelligence agency are leading the probe, bolstered by a media campaign.

Posters showing Lopez's face are on police patrol cars, in airports and inside trains. The government has even sent out text messages to cell phone users to publicize the search.

''Any information that reveals something about the whereabouts of Jorge Julio Lopez will be of enormous help. We want people to know that we can't stand still,'' Sola said.


Although his family hasn't ruled out the possibility that Lopez went into hiding, President Nestor Kirchner has said Lopez was ''the victim of those who don't want justice in Argentina.'' Many fear he may have been kidnapped by former members of the security forces to intimidate witnesses in trials for decades-old crimes, launched after the Supreme Court last year scrapped amnesty laws shielding human rights abusers.

An estimated 11,000 to 30,000 people died or disappeared in the ''dirty war'' purge of leftists and dissidents, which also swept up people without political involvement.

Some critics say the government has not done enough to protect witnesses in these cases.

This week, the nation's interior minister went on the offensive, accusing the courts of stalling an order to search a property after investigators got a tip that Lopez or his remains might be there.

A judge overseeing the case said prosecutors never requested a search warrant.

With Sola weighing a re-election bid next year, activists complain that Lopez's disappearance is being used as a political tool.

Local lawmaker Pablo Bruera, allied with the governor and the president, has proposed that the provincial legislature form a commission to help in the investigation.

''This is the top problem facing the government of Buenos Aires province,'' Bruera said. ''If we don't find Lopez, many people will decide not to testify (in rights trials) because they will see they don't have the necessary protections.''


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