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Argentina court defies ruling cutting dictatorship-era sentences

© AFP/File / by Paula Bustamante | A demonstrator holds a sign reading in Spanish "No two for one for crimes against humanity; full jail-time!" during the Madres de Plaza de Mayo human rights group's weekly demonstration at the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires on May 4, 2017

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) - 

A court in Argentina on Tuesday deepened a fierce legal and social debate in the country by going against a Supreme Court ruling that cuts prison sentences of those convicted of dictatorship-era crimes.

The federal court in the western city of San Juan said it viewed the Supreme Court judgement to be "unconstitutional and inapplicable" in a case it was deciding.

Its stance is permitted under Argentine law, where federal judges have leeway in interpreting Supreme Court rulings when it comes to people convicted of violating human rights. Other courts could now follow suit.

But any appeals will go back in the country's highest court.

"I think we'll see more judges going in the same direction. But all of these cases will again end up in the Supreme Court," a constitutional lawyer, Eduardo Barcesat, told AFP.

Carmen Roqueta, an Argentine judge who was on a tribunal handling cases related to the confiscation of babies during the dictatorship, noted on Monday that judges are "sovereign" in making decisions.

"But when the Court builds jurisprudence it's difficult to go back. Judges have to apply the doctrine of the court unless it has new arguments to go against this ruling."

- Government opposed -

Argentina's government has already come out against the Supreme Court ruling, which covers sentences for crimes committed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. It wants its scope to be extremely limited.

In a three-to-two vote, the court's justices upheld a law dating back to 1994-2001 that allows an offender's prison sentence to be reduced by the time spent in custody awaiting trial, with each day served in detention being counted as two days in the calculation.

That was applied early this month to the 13-year sentence of an ex-paramilitary fighter convicted in 2011 for crimes including torture and kidnapping.

Potentially, it could affect around a thousand people convicted for dictatorship-era crimes, and another thousand being held pending outcomes of trials.

Already, several inmates incarcerated for such crimes are requesting shortened sentences, including a 78-year-old priest, Christian Von Wernich, who received a life sentence for murder and kidnapping.

But in its decision on Tuesday, the San Juan court rejected its application in a petition by a former soldier, Alejandro Lazo, who wanted to have his 10-year sentence for crimes against humanity similarly trimmed.

On Wednesday, the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group highlighting the confiscation of babies born to suspected dissidents during the dictatorship, are to hold a march against the Supreme Court's ruling.

It is also seeking a political trial of the three justices who voted in favor of it.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged Argentina to align itself with "international norms."

by Paula Bustamante

© 2017 AFP