Widow of Peron arrested in Spain over 'dirty war'

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The Independent Online

Spanish police detained the former president of Argentina Maria Estela Martinez de Peron last night at her home near Madrid in connection with the disappearance of a young man during her mandate in the 1970s when Argentina's "dirty war" began.

The detention of Mrs Peron, also known as "Isabelita", was carried out in response to a detention order received via Interpol from an Argentine judge in the western province of Mendoza. Hector Aldo Fagetti Gallego disappeared a month before a military coup overthrew Mrs Peron, widow of the strongman Juan Domingo Peron, in March 1976. As President, Mrs Peron granted the armed forces powers in 1975 to "annihilate subversive elements", in decrees which Argentine courts now reckon amount to acts of state terrorism.

Mrs Peron, 75, was driven to the National Court in Madrid last night which ordered her conditional release, pending approval of the request for extradition to Argentina.

The detention has convulsed her former homeland, recalling years of terror when state-sanctioned hit squads, the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance or "Triple A", roamed the country in grey-green Ford Falcons and snatched suspected subversives off busy streets in broad daylight. Human rights groups say some 2,000 people - including politicians, intellectuals, artists and students - were abducted or murdered during her chaotic two-year rule.

"If the judges believe there was state terrorism before the 1976 military coup, then those responsible need to be tried," said Argentina's President Nestor Kirchner who, as a left-wing lawyer was detained twice during the Peron presidency.

"We want reconciliation, but with truth and without impunity. We must know the truth," Mr Kirchner said after Judge Raul Hector Acosta ordered the detention order on Thursday.

Driven from office by a military junta in 1976, Mrs Peron was held under house arrest in Argentina until 1981, when she went into exile in Spain and settled in the smart area of Villanueva de la Canada, outside Madrid.

Famed for her rigid hairdo, flyaway eyebrows and screeching voice, the former nightclub dancer who caught Juan Peron's eye after the death of Evita in the 1950s, succeeded him as President when he died in July 1974. She formed a sinister alliance with her social welfare minister. Jose Lopez Rega (said to have been the pianist at the same night club) founded the Triple A in 1973 and was renowned for his interest in the occult. Argentines contemptuously dubbed the pair "la puta y la bruja" - the tart and the wizard.

Hector Aldo Fagetti Gallego, 24, disappeared on 25 February 1976, was detained in two military barracks and was last seen on 10 March 1976, a fortnight before the coup. Some 18,000 people disappeared by 1983, according to official statistics. Human rights groups put the figure at nearer 30,000.