After years of delays, public trial began today for nineteen naval officers accused of murder, forced disappearance, torture, illegal detention and other crimes committed during Argentina’s military dictatorship. Many of these cases had been investigated in the early 1980s, but investigations were put on hold when the government passed an amnesty law. Only in 2005, when both the Supreme Court and Congress annulled the amnesty law on grounds that it conflicted with Argentina’s international obligations to prosecute crimes against humanity, did prosecutors and investigating judges begin reconstructing the cases.
The Naval Mechanics Academy (known in Spanish as ESMA) was one of the most notorious secret detention centers in Argentina during the 1970s. Thousands of people were detained and tortured there; most of them ended up being drugged, put on airplanes, and dropped into the sea. However, a good number were put to work forging documents, fixing electrical appliances, or clipping news stories and doing analysis for Navy chief Emilio Massera, who had political ambitions. Thus, there are more ESMA survivors able to testify than is true for most of the secret torture and detention facilities.
Among the victims of ESMA personnel are two French nuns, Léonie Duquet and Alice Domon (pictured right). The two were detained because of their work helping to organize the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose weekly protests on behalf of their missing children became the face of opposition to the dictatorship. Former Naval captain Alfredo Astiz, now on trial, has been previously condemned in absentia by French and Italian courts for the murder of the nuns. Now he sits in the dock in Buenos Aires, and may finally see jail time.
Also among those on trial is Ricardo Cavallo, also known as “Serpico.” Cavallo was a member of a task force who kidnapped victims and brought them to ESMA, and he later oversaw some of the surviving ESMA victims. After the end of the dictatorship, he moved to Mexico. He was arrested there on a warrant from Spanish Judge Garzón, who had opened his own investigation into the crimes of the Argentine and Chilean militaries (yes, the same Garzón who issued the arrest warrant for Augusto Pinochet). Cavallo was eventually extradited to Spain after the Mexican Supreme Court decided that the extradition was proper. He was held in jail in Madrid for over 4 years before the Spanish and Argentine governments agreed that a fair trial was now possible for him back home. So he too sits in the dock.
One defendant in the ESMA case is missing: Captain Adolfo Scilingo, who had admitted to a journalist his participation in the “death flights” is now sitting in a Spanish jail. Scilingo flew to Spain in 1997 to testify before Judge Garzón. Garzón promptly arrested him, and he was brought to trial and convicted in 2005. He is now serving a sentence of several hundred years. More recently, another Argentine “death pilot”, Julio Poch, was arrested in Spain in December 2008. Poch, an Argentine-Dutch citizen who had become a commercial pilot, boasted to his co-workers about his participation in killing “subversives.” His boss ended up turning him in, and the Dutch police issued a warrant and extradition request for him when he was piloting a flight in Spain. He too will probably eventually end up in the dock in Buenos Aires.
What to make of all this? A few ideas: first, justice delayed isn’t always justice denied, even if it is justice made much more complicated and difficult. Second, justice can take place in national courts, not just in international criminal tribunals. Third, justice in national courts is a transnational enterprise, with judges, prosecutors, and victims’ groups in different countries collaborating and sharing information.
(Coming soon: advances in Chile and Guatemala)