BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Raul Alfonsin, the Argentine president who guided his country's return to democracy following a military dictatorship that left thousands missing, died on Tuesday. He was 82.
Alfonsin's personal doctor, Alberto Sadler, said he died of lung cancer. The government declared three days of mourning.
The presidential inauguration of the burly, mustachioed leader on Dec. 10, 1983, ended more than seven years of a repressive military regime that left at least 13,000 disappeared.
He won an open election that the military was forced to call, in disgrace, after the nation's defeat in the 1982 war with Britain over the Falklands Islands.
His presidency was marked by two milestones: his daring decision to bring to trial the leaders of the dictatorship for human rights violations, and an economic collapse that made him hand power to his successor six month early. Annual inflation had surpassed 3,000 percent.
Few discussed his crucial role in the restoration of democracy at a time when military regimes ruled most of South America, but his presidency came to be seen as a milestone in the region.
He was instrumental in getting several political groups to set aside differences and unite in a loose coalition that paved the way for the 1983 election. He garnered 51.7 percent of the vote, handing the powerful Peronist party its first election defeat ever.
In office, he quickly ordered the trial of nine members of the former ruling military junta, on charges including kidnapping, torture and the forced disappearances of thousands.
It was a bold step in a country where the military dominated for decades, having taken power in six coups in the 20th century.
"I think that sometimes I take too many risks, because what we did no one had done before," he said looking back.
Alfonsin said the trials were needed to restore a strong judicial system and break the destructive cycle of political chaos and military coups.
The trials, unprecedented in Latin America, ended in December 1985 with the conviction and imprisonment of five former military rulers, including two ex-presidents. Four others were acquitted.
Alfonsin established a National Commission on the Disappearance of People which produced for the courts a lengthy report known as "Nunca Mas," or "Never Again," detailing the military's ruthless campaign against dissident based on testimony by hundreds of victims and their relatives and witnesses.
Official records now put the number of disappeared during Argentina's 1976-83 dictatorship at 13,000, while human rights groups say the toll is closer to 30,000.
Alfonsin was right about the risks involved in trying the military. He survived three military uprisings between 1987 and 1988, and as a result asked Congress to approve legislation ending the trials and exempting from guilt lower ranking officers.
Only now are many of the dictatorship's most notorious figures being prosecuted, after Argentina's Supreme Court struck down in 2005 sweeping amnesties from the 1980s that shielded hundreds of former officers from prosecution.
Alfonsin kept his aura as a key figure of democracy until the end.
"You are a symbol of democracy," Cristina Fernandez told him as she was sworn in as Argentina's Peronist president in 2008.
Alfonsin made clear, however, there was still work to be done.
"Our democracy is limp and incomplete," He said as the nation marked the 25th anniversary of civilian rule.
He explained his strong rejection of authoritarian rule as inherited from his father, a fervent supporter of the Republican Forces crushed by Gen. Francisco Franco in the Spanish civil war.
After elementary school, however, he attended a military academy for five years.
"Those were five very good years, for they served to tire me of military officials," he later observed.
As a 23-year-old law graduate from the University of La Plata, Alfonsin married Maria L. Barrenechea, whom he knew since childhood and courted at neighborhood dances in Chascomus, outside Buenos Aires.
Law practice was a base for launching his political career: city commissioner in 1955, a provincial legislator three years later and a member of the national House of Deputies in 1963.
In 1976, the military toppled President Isabel Peron, who had succeeded her husband, Gen. Juan Domingo Peron at his death, and launched a harsh campaign to wipe out leftist subversion.
In response, Alfonsin and several prominent citizens formed the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights, which denounced rights abuse, challenging the regime.
Alfonsin was his party's uncontested presidential candidate when the military permitted elections in 1983. He won on a platform of human rights and honesty in government.
He is survived by his six children. A vigil will be held in his honor at midnight on Wednesday in Congress.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press