One of the most significant trials of former military personnel active during the 1976-83 Argentine dictatorship will start this Friday.
By Robert-Jan Friele
Nineteen officers are accused of human rights abuses at the Escuela Mecánica de la Armada or ESMA, a former navy school and one of Latin- America’s most notorious torture-centres.
When the Argentine army came to power, it decided to implement what it called a ‘Process of National Reorganisation’ and during the next seven years between 9,000 and 30,000 people were murdered or disappeared.
During the Process, the ESMA functioned as the biggest clandestine detention centre in the country. It served as a base for paramilitary units or ‘task groups’ who would kidnap people from their homes or on the streets. Most of those brought to the ESMA were severely tortured and later disappeared. Less than 200 Argentines are thought to have survived the ESMA.
Judge Sergio Torres is leading the ESMA prosecutions and has 900 documented cases of victims. Overall, some 5,000 Argentines are thought to have passed through the school, around 1,500 of whom were anaesthetized and thrown out of planes during so-called ‘death flights’.
Because of the enormous number of victims and suspects, Argentine judges have divided the ‘mega-trial’ into segments. Two years ago, the first ESMA case came to court. Back then only one former military official, Héctor Febres, stood trial on charges of kidnapping and torture. But the day before the verdict, Febres was found dead in his cell from apparent cyanide poisoning.
This Friday, 19 former military officials will stand trial on charges of torture, forced disappearance, murder and theft.
‘Angel of death’
One of the suspects is Alfredo Astiz, also known as the ‘blond angel of death’. Astiz infiltrated the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo organisation, pretending to be the brother of a disappeared man. In early December 1977, nine members of the organisation were arrested and consequently disappeared. Among them were founder Azucena Villaflor and French nuns Alice Domon and Léonie Renée Duquet.
Human rights organisations in Argentina have been looking forward to the trial. Some of the accused were prosecuted in the 1980s, but were acquitted after former president Raúl Alfonsín signed the controversial Due Obedience Law that barred the prosecution of lower-level military personnel.
In 2005, prosecution was resumed but because of a lack of capacity, many former military officers still haven’t been prosecuted 26 years after democracy returned to the country.
However, says Patricia Tappatá de Valdez of the NGO Memoria Abierta, or Open Memory, “Argentina is one of the countries in the world that has advanced the most when it comes to confronting the past.” According to the Center for Legal and Social Studies, Argentina’s courts are dealing with over 1,300 cases of human rights violations, some of which have already been concluded.