January 14, 2005
A former Argentinian naval officer went on trial in Madrid today on charges of genocide and torture related to Argentina's "dirty war" of more than 20 years ago. The opening of the trial makes Adolfo Scilingo, 58, the first person to be tried in Spain on allegations of crimes committed in another country.
Mr Scilingo travelled voluntarily to Spain in 1997 and admitted that he had thrown 30 drugged and naked dissidents alive out of aircraft into the Atlantic in what were known as "flights of death". He was imprisoned in Spain and charged, but has since recanted his confession and has fought to avoid trial, launching a hunger strike in December. Earlier this week he fainted in prison but doctors examined him and on Wednesday declared him fit to stand trial at Madrid's national court.
Mr Scilingo was one of the first officers to come forward and openly admit the atrocities that were committed under the Argentinian junta's brutal 1976-83 crackdown on leftists. Eight years ago he had testified before Judge Baltasar Garzón, who has led an investigation into human rights violations by military regimes in Argentina and Chile since the late 1990s. Judge Garzón's indictment of Mr Scilingo and dozens of other suspects argues that the Argentinian regime tried to systematically eliminate an entire group of people - its opponents - and that this amounted to attempted genocide.
Officially, more than 13,000 people disappeared during Argentina's crackdown, but some groups believe the figure was much higher. Outside the courthouse, Argentinian protesters waved banners saying the regime was responsible for the disappearance of 30,000 people and had stolen 5,000 babies. "Where are they?" one banner asked.
This is the latest case in a growing body of international law that allows courts in one country to judge human rights crimes allegedly committed in another, regardless of the suspect's nationality. In a landmark ruling in 1998, Spain's national court said crimes against humanity, such as genocide, could be tried regardless of where the crime was committed. Apart from Spain, other European countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium have brought perpetrators to trial for serious human rights abuses committed elsewhere, especially following atrocities in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Mr Scilingo's appearance in court today was delayed for more than an hour after he had a dizzy spell in his holding cell. Looking very weak and pale, he walked into the courtroom bundled up in winter clothes and with two policemen holding him up by the arms. When he finally took the stand, he mumbled unintelligibly as one member of the three-judge panel overseeing the trial started to read out the charges against him. The hearing was later interrupted twice while he was examined by a doctor, before resuming with Mr Scilingo in a wheelchair.
The trial is expected to last until mid-February. Another Argentinian suspect, Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, who was extradited from Mexico to Spain in 2003 at Judge Garzón's request, is also awaiting trial for human rights abuses.
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