Uncertainty again hangs over Argentina's human rights issue after this week's verdict on General Ramon Camps and six other former members of the Buenos Aires Province police force.
Delivering sentence, the Federal Appeals Court ruled against "due obedience," an idea proposed by Argentine President Raul Alfonsin under which some officers might be acquitted because they were following orders."Due obedience" is seen in human rights circles as a barely disguised amnesty for most if not all the hundreds of officers accused in other cases.
Many observers suspect that the principle is viewed in much the same light within both the government and the armed forces.
The court ruled "due obedience" was no defense. But the sentences implied it accepted that the chain of command had much to do with the degree of personal responsibility.
General Camps, who led the provincial police force at the height of the military regime's "Dirty War" after the coup d'etat 1976, was jailed for 25 years on 73 counts of torture; his deputy, Senior Police Commissioner Miguel Etchekolatz got 23 years on 91 counts; General Ovidio Richerri, who succeeded General Camps, was convicted on 20 counts and sentenced to 14 years.
But although Judge Guillermo Ledesma, president of the six-man court, cited dozens of legal opinions to overrule "due obedience," sentences for other defendents were dramatically shorter.
Dr. Antonio Berges, a police surgeon named at last year's trial of nine former commanders of the regime, got six years' prison as a "coauthor" on two counts of torture.
Police corporal Norberto Cozzani, by far the lowest-ranking defendent, was found guilty on four similar charges but sentenced to only four years. Two senior police officers were acquitted for lack of evidence.
The sentences surprised observers who had listened for over four hours as Judge Ledesma delivered a judgement that will have a major bearing on other trials.
It took him almost an hour to get to due obedience, the subject everyone was waiting for. But within minutes, he had stressed "every soldier knows that to kill, torture or rob a person unable to defend himself is a crime."
Standing outside the courtroom during a recess only moments later, Federal Prosecutor Julio Strassera emphatically stated the defense of following orders had already been "totally rejected."
As the session resumed, Judge Ledesma drove the point home: "There is no authority superior to the law," he said. Even the Military Code of Justice did not imply obedience to unlawful orders and instead set limits on abuse of authority.
The judge commented that Defense Minister Horacio Jaunarena - an acknowledged advocate of due obedience - told the Senate earlier this year ''no obedience is absolutely blind."
The contrast between the arguments and the sentences prompted criticism that on due obedience, the court took away with one hand but gave back with the other.
President Alfonsin had hoped the court would define "due obedience." But the message from the judges was that if the politicians wanted due obedience, they should legislate for it.
The political risks attached to that route lead most observers to believe it unlikely President Alfonsin will press the point. But, they said, that does not imply that investigation of human rights courts will now be left solely to the courts, as he once said it would.
The final stages of the Camps trial saw mounting speculation over the government's ultimate intentions, as senior officials mulled over a proposed new law ominously dubbed the "Final Point. This, it was said, would either halt the trials or set a deadline for new cases to be brought before the courts.
But President Alfonsin may yet avoid what one critic bitterly called "an overnight statute of limitations" that was all the worse because it would be retroactive, and hence unconstitutional in Argentina.
Judge Ledesma and his colleagues may have dealt a blow to due obedience, but they are also deemed to have opened up an equally problematic possibility.
All the accused were absolved on some charges on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired on crimes committed a decade ago.
Human rights lawyers question how the statute of limitations can apply to crimes committed when the rule of law did not exist in Argentina.
But they note most cases are still under military courts that have long dragged their feet in a blatant refusal to judge their own, as President Alfonsin once hoped they might.