Global Policy Forum

Argentinean Officer Jailed by Spain


By Elizabeth Nash

April 20, 2005

In the first international law ruling of its kind, Spain's National Court sentenced the Argentinian former naval officer Adolfo Scilingo to 640 years' jail for crimes against humanity committed during Argentina's "dirty war". A panel of three judges convicted Scilingo, 68, of participating in "death flights" during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, when opponents of the regime were stripped, drugged and flung from aircraft into the Atlantic; and found him responsible for the deaths of 30 people.

This is the first time anyone has been convicted in person (rather than in absentia) of human rights crimes committed in another country. Yesterday's verdict is a vindication of the principle established by Spain's crusading judge Baltasar Garzon that human rights crimes can be tried anywhere in the world, and that ex-torturers and murderers have nowhere to hide.

Judge Garzon's attempt to bring Augusto Pinochet to trial in Spain failed when Britain freed the former Chilean dictator on health grounds in March 2002. Pinochet was arrested in London and charged with torture and genocide on Judge Garzon's request, but the then Home Secretary Jack Straw refused to extradite Pinochet to Spain.

When the judge read yesterday's verdict in the Madrid courtroom, families of victims who had sought justice for nearly three decades wept with joy. Some had travelled from Argentina to give evidence, others had long since fled to Spain as exiles. Some wore stickers with pictures of their missing loved ones. Scilingo listened to the sentence with his head bowed, taking notes. He made no reaction either to the verdict or to cries from the public. He was convicted on 30 counts of murder, at 21 years each, plus five years for illegal detention and another five for torture. "Asesino! Rot in jail!" cried a man in the gallery as guards led Scilingo away.

Charges of genocide and terrorism were dropped, reflecting the difficulty of establishing proof in the case. Evidence was provided by dozens who had been kidnapped and tortured, or who described experiences of relatives. But only one survivor of the notorious death centre in Buenos Aires, the Naval Mechanics School (Esma) recognised Scilingo as having worked there for more than a year. Up to 5,000 died at Esma, including women whose babies born in detention were stolen and given to families of military officers.

But no one survived to testify about the vuelos de la muerte, although there were rumours of bodies found in the river Plate. The evidence was based on Scilingo's confession that he pushed people from planes, which he later retracted. Scilingo admitted in 1995 he had participated in "action groups" responsible for kidnapping, torturing and "disappearing" people. Tormented by memories, he said up to 2,000 people were tossed alive from death flights, 15 or 20 at a time, including two French nuns.

He travelled to Madrid in 1997 to testify voluntarily to Judge Garzon. He was detained, but recanted and tried to sue Judge Garzon for unlawful detention. The trial of Scilingo opened in January this year. Grandmothers, mothers and children of disappeared Argentinians embraced emotionally outside the courtroom yesterday. "I hope while Scilingo is behind bars his conscience softens and he tells us where our murdered children and grandchildren lie, because we've been looking for them for 27 years and we don't want to die without embracing them," said Estela Barnes de Carlotto, president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association.

Amnesty International hailed yesterday's verdict as "a clear message that perpetrators of crimes against humanity can find no refuge". Some 30,000 Argentinians are estimated to have disappeared during the dictatorship. Scilingo will serve only 30 years, under Spain's penal code. His lawyer said he would appeal to the Spanish Supreme Court.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on Universal Jurisdiction
More Information on Augusto Pinochet


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