[News] Landmark Human Rights Case in Argentina Puts Torture on Trial

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jan 8 11:46:32 EST 2010

Landmark Human Rights Case in Argentina Puts Torture on Trial

January 08, 2010

By Marie Trigona
Source: Americas IRC

Argentine courts have launched an investigation 
into crimes committed at the ESMA Navy Mechanics 
School during the nation's military dictatorship. 
The landmark human rights trial is one of the 
most far-reaching attempts to bring crimes of 
Latin America's bloody past to justice.

For more than three decades, survivors and their 
families awaited the trial that finally began on 
Dec. 11, 2009. During Argentina's 1976-1983 
dictatorship, the ESMA Navy Mechanics School 
served as a clandestine detention center, used to 
torture and disappear thousands of people. Now 17 
former ESMA officers face charges of human rights abuses, torture, and murder.

The ESMA trial was scheduled to begin in November 
but was postponed at the request of the defense. 
Those on trial include Alfredo Astiz, Jorge 
Acosta, Ricardo Cavallo, and Adolfo Donda­cited 
by human rights groups as among the most brutal 
and sinister repressors in the Argentine security 
forces. In total, 13 marines, two police, one 
coast guard, and one army official are on trial.

More than 200 witnesses will testify in the 
historic trial. Groups have stressed the need for 
witness protection following a wave of threats 
and the disappearance of a key witness, Jorge 
Julio Lopez, three years ago. Even President 
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has supported 
the human rights trial, has received threats. 
While traveling in her presidential helicopter, 
the helicopter's transit radio signal was 
intercepted at almost exactly the same moment as 
the ESMA trial opened. Anonymous voices were 
broadcast saying the words "kill her," followed 
by the military hymn that was played when Jorge 
Rafael Videla took power in the March 24, 1976 
military coup. Interior Minister Anibal Fernandez 
says the threats could be "closely linked" to the ESMA trial.

ESMA, Symbol of State Terrorism

During Argentina's 1976-1983 military 
dictatorship, more than 30,000 people were 
forcefully disappeared. Kidnapped by commando 
groups in the middle of the night, they were 
taken to clandestine detention centers. The 
largest and most notorious torture center, the 
ESMA Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, still 
stands today, but as a museum to remind the 
nation of the terror of the coup regimes.

Victor Basterra is among the "lucky" ones who 
survived the torture at ESMA, where he was held 
from 1979-1983. As he walks through the basement 
of the ESMA Officers' Quarters, Basterra recalls 
the place where he and detainees underwent 
unimaginable terror. He points out a small room. 
"This area was called the 'huevera' or 'egg cup' 
because the walls were lined with egg cartons to drown out screams."

Naval officers, along with other police and 
military groups, devised a complex system for the 
forced disappearance of individuals using the 
ESMA facilities. Most of the prisoners were held 
at the Officers' Quarters, where high-ranking 
officials lived while women and men were tortured in the basement and attic.

"There were different teams of torturers. The 
police, coast guard, naval guard, secret service, 
and the penitentiary service all had torture 
teams. They rotated," said Basterra. "They were 
always active, especially when they had a 
prisoner who had information. They would torture 
the person for days. On one occasion they 
tortured me for two days without stopping. They 
would constantly change posts, because the torturers would get tired."

Torture survivors from the ESMA provided much of 
the information on what is known about how the 
ESMA operated. Basterra, who will testify in the 
trial, took photos of officers and prisoners 
during his detention at the ESMA, risking his 
life to smuggle them out to later provide 
evidence for the trials. The photos were used in the first Junta Trial in 1985.

This trial includes only a handful of the 
military involved in the complex lexicon of 
torture inside the ESMA. More than 5,000 people 
were detained and disappeared at the ESMA Navy 
Mechanics School. Hundreds of officers, cadets, 
and high-ranking officials worked at what was 
comparable to a concentration camp.

Juan De Wandelaer, from the Peace and Justice 
Service (SERPAJ), says the ESMA trial is a 
landmark case for Argentina. "The Argentine Navy 
has never faced trial. The ESMA is a symbolic 
building and carries a lot of weight for 
Argentines. Thousands of people were disappeared 
from the ESMA, most of whom were thrown from 
planes into the sea after being drugged," says De Wandelaer.

"This trial will bring to light the evidence 
showing how the ESMA functioned, because not only 
navy and military officers are facing trial, but 
also police and civilians. In this aspect, the 
trial is important because it will further dismantle the wall of impunity."

Landmark Trial

Many of the crimes that the trial will examine 
were previously held up in court in the mid 80s. 
The perpetrators enjoyed freedom for the past 20 
years thanks to the Due Obedience and Full Stop 
laws passed in the early 90s, which prevented any 
successful prosecution of ex-military leaders for 
human rights crimes by the courts.

Appropriately named "the blonde angel of death," 
Astiz was 22 when he infiltrated the Mothers of 
Plaza de Mayo posing as the brother of one of the 
disappeared. He marked his victims with a kiss 
outside the Santa Cruz Church. On Dec. 8, 1977 
the founders of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Esther 
Careaga and Maria Eugenia Ponce, were kidnapped 
from the Santa Cruz Church along with 8 others. 
Azucena Villaflor, another founding mother, was 
kidnapped outside her home just days later. The 
three women were taken to the ESMA, and later 
dropped into the sea from death flights. The 
Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team identified 
their bodies in 2005. Astiz was tried in 
Argentina in 1985 but the amnesty laws halted the 
proceedings. He has since been sentenced to life 
in prison by a French court in connection with 
the disappearance of French nuns, Léonie Duquet and Alice Domon.

In the courtroom, Astiz wore jeans, a navy blue 
sweater, and a sinister smile. During the opening 
allegations, which included over 80 accusations 
of forced disappearances, torture, and rape, the 
accused sat under the scrutiny of dozens of media 
outlets who were filming and taking photos. After 
seven hours of accusations, as the former 
officers were being handcuffed to be transported 
to their jail cells, rights activists in the 
courtroom chanted: "Like the Nazis, you'll get it 
too." Astiz looked at the activists and with a 
smile displayed the book he opted to read during 
the trial­Return to Kill (Volver a Matar) by Juan 
Bautista Yofre, ex-chief of the nation's State 
Intelligence Agency. Rights advocates responded, 
"30,000 disappeared­present! Now and Forever!"

Outside the courtroom, survivors and relatives 
reiterated the need to keep the historic memory 
alive and seek the truth. "They tried to deny us 
justice for so many years," said Enrique Fukman, 
a torture survivor detained at the ESMA. Fukman 
spoke to hundreds of supporters at the trial 
opening, expressing his relief that the trial has 
begun. Another survivor of the ESMA, Graciela 
Daleo, said that the military officials who 
decided who would live and who would die are now 
vulnerable in the justice system. "Those of us 
who survived detention, when returning to the 
ESMA for the first time collectively understood 
the power of those buildings, because those 
buildings sheltered the people who owned life and 
death. Now they are the ones being photographed and handcuffed."

Slow but Overdue Justice

Since the Supreme Court overturned amnesty laws 
barring courts from trying officers involved in 
rights abuses during the dictatorship, 26 trials 
have begun and 58 former military and police 
officers have been sentenced. Carolina Varsky, 
human rights lawyer and director of the Center 
for Legal Studies (CELS), says that while justice 
has been slow, lawyers must follow strict 
procedures to ensure that the sentences served 
will be lengthy. "Argentina has progressed in the 
trials, using its own judicial system and not an 
international court. While we are proud that we 
can carry out justice in our own country, I wish 
the trials were faster. Because relatives of 
victims are dying; the ones who repressed us are 
dying. The number of accused who have not 
testified because they are declared incompetent 
or who have died before going to trial is quite high."

CELS is a human rights organization formed in 
1979. The push by CELS for the Trials for Truth 
in the 90s, when justice was not possible under 
the amnesty laws, led to the Supreme Court's 
decision in 2003 to overturn the laws. "We must 
play by the rules of the courts. The difficulty 
is presenting evidence to the courts 33 years 
after the actual events took place, and after the 
State destroyed much of the evidence, burning 
papers that could incriminate the military," says Varsky.

The persistent work of survivors, relatives, and 
human rights advocates over the past three 
decades has resulted in the collection of 
overwhelming evidence, and more military 
personnel will face trial in the coming year. The 
proceedings in the ESMA trial are expected to 
conclude in six to eight months. "These are not 
the trials that we want, but they are the trials 
that we have," said Daleo, hoping that human 
rights groups can continue to make strides 
against impunity for crimes against humanity.

Human rights continue to be an open wound for 
much of Latin America, especially the countries 
that survived brutal military dictatorships in 
the 70s and 80s, such as Argentina, Brazil, 
Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Patrick 
Rice, a former Irish priest detained by a 
commando group in a Buenos Aires shanty town in 
1976, said that while many countries have made 
progress in seeking justice for crimes committed 
by military juntas, some countries still have 
impunity laws protecting the military. "We have 
an ambiguous situation in Latin America regarding 
human rights, with a coup in Honduras and U.S. 
military bases in Colombia. There have been a 
number of progressive governments in Chile, 
Brazil, and Bolivia that have made strides in the 
broad sense of human rights. Argentina is taking 
a clear lead on human rights, with its trials on 
crimes committed during the past. This is very hopeful for Latin America."

The ESMA trial is a welcome step toward justice, 
however much remains to be known about the 
whereabouts of 30,000 people who were forcefully 
disappeared. Argentina's military continues to 
deny human right lawyers' requests for the 
release of archives and top-secret information 
about the crimes the military coup committed. The 
disappearance of the witness Julio Lopez in 2006 
has reignited painful memories of selective 
repression with impunity and fears about the 
possibility of violent repercussions against 
survivors and witnesses participating in human rights trials.

Despite hard evidence concluding that thousands 
of officers were involved in the crimes against 
humanity and disappearances, only 280 former 
officers are facing trial, and many of those 
charged with crimes are under house arrest rather 
than awaiting trial in jail. Without the decades 
of dedication from survivors, relatives of 
victims, and human rights advocates, convicted 
assassins like Alfredo Astiz might never have 
been tried in the country where they committed 
the crimes. While there is hope for Latin 
America, even in Argentina the human rights 
trials have limited scope in the fight against impunity.

Marie Trigona is a journalist based in Argentina 
and writes regularly for the Americas Program 
She can be reached at mtrigona(a)msn.com

From: Z Net - The Spirit Of Resistance Lives

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