Argentine navy captain 'Angel Face' Astiz sentenced to life imprisonment

During the 1960s and 1970s, military dictatorships backed by the US surged over Latin America.  Although these regimes committed unspeakable atrocities against their people (a 'dirty war' which received covert US support), those responsible could not be brought to justice with the return of civilian rule because of amnesty laws. In recent years, many Latin American governments (reports below relate to Argentina and Uruguay) have moved to lift such immunity and bring the culprits to book.

TWO notorious former Argentine navy officers Alfredo Astiz and 'Tigre' Acosta were sentenced to life in prison on 26 October after being found guilty of kidnapping, torture and the forced disappearances of many detainees in the former Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA) during the last dictatorship (1976-1983).

As the sentence was read in the courtroom the crowd waiting outside celebrated and cheered, which almost caused it to be suspended.

Astiz, who was also known as the baby-faced 'angel of death', acted under the false identity of Gustavo Nino, infiltrated the activities of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights group in 1977 and 'marked' his victims, who were later tortured at ESMA and thrown alive into the sea from helicopters.

Among them were the founder of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Azucena Villaflor and two French nuns Leonie Duquet and Alice Domon.

Other oppressors such as Antonio PernĦas, Oscar Montes and Raul Scheller were also sentenced to life in prison.

On the day of the sentencing, a long line of people was seen outside the Buenos Aires courtroom, as many of them wanted to hear the reading live. Relatives of the accused were seen standing in line next to family members of those who had disappeared.

Earlier, in the morning, three of the accused were given the chance to provide the court with their last statements before the reading.

Captain Astiz was also involved in the Falklands conflict in 1982 and signed the surrender of the South Georgia garrison to the advancing British Task Force that finally recovered the Islands in June. He was flown as a prisoner to the UK, but later returned before France requested his extradition on the case of the killing of the two nuns.

The Argentine media has always pointed out that in spite of his defence arguments that as a naval officer he was 'trained to kill', he surrendered in South Georgia 'without firing a single shot'.

Astiz was born in November 1951 in Mar del Plata and following the 1976 coup was commissioned to ESMA in the north of Buenos Aires city where the main clandestine jail of the de facto government operated.

He belonged to Task Force 332 and was responsible for innumerable kidnappings of victims who ended up at ESMA, many of them to never return. Argentine human rights organisations estimate 5,000 people were detained at ESMA but only 100 survived to tell what went on in those dungeons.

In 1986/87 Astiz was benefited with a general amnesty bill but in 1990 a French court sentenced him to life in absentia for the killing of the two nuns, Domon and Duquet. Seven years later the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon ordered his arrest and extradition together with 44 other Argentine officers charged with genocide.

In 1998 he was given a dishonourable discharge from the Navy, to which he was said to be so proud to belong. He was interviewed several times and admitted admiring the Argentine-Cuban guerrilla Che Guevara but was not at all repentant of having fought the 'anti-Argentine Marxist terrorists'.

But 2003 marked the beginning of the end when the Argentine Congress annulled the amnesty bill, and torture and human rights abuse cases involving military officers, including Astiz, were reopened.

In early 2004 Astiz was sent to a military jail and two years later investigations into his involvement in the shooting and disappearance of the Swedish teenager Dagmar Hagelin were reopened. In 2007 an Italian court also condemned him to life imprisonment in absentia and he was transferred to a common jail to await the ESMA trial.  - MercoPress     

Sub-article to the above

Uruguay passes bill eliminating amnesty for crimes against humanity

THE Uruguayan Congress on 27 October passed a law that eliminates the effects of the 1986 Amnesty Law (also known as Expiry Law), which protected police and military personnel from being prosecuted for human rights violations, and repeals a statute of limitations that would have prevented victims from filing criminal complaints as of 1 November.

'With the approval of this new law, Uruguay's Congress has taken an historical step forward in the fight against impunity for past crimes,' said Guadalupe Marengo, Deputy Director of the Americas Programme at Amnesty International.

The 1986 Ley de Caducidad de la Pretensi˘n Punitiva del Estado (Amnesty Law or Expiry Law) was passed after Uruguay returned to democratic rule, giving the President the final say over which cases of human rights violations could be investigated.

The measure shielded police and military personnel from prosecution for torture, killings, enforced disappearances and other serious human rights violations committed during an 11-year period of authoritarian rule up to 1985.

The bill was a match to the amnesty law which benefited all the urban guerrillas in jail or on the loose for blood crimes committed from 1964 onwards, basically taking arms and appealing to violence to bring down democratically elected governments.

This as such has been repeatedly confessed publicly in Uruguay and overseas by the current President Jose Mujica, a former urban guerrilla leader who spent over a decade in jail and in the 2009 presidential polls was elected as the candidate of the left-leaning catch-all coalition, Broad Front, which includes political organisations of former guerrilla groups.

'We were not terrorists, we were an armed political party wanting to overthrow the government,' Mujica has confessed.

Military rule

The military took over in Uruguay in June 1973 following the collapse of the political system dwarfed by a weak political coalition, rebellious unions and urban guerrillas who concentrated their firepower on military officers to force the reaction of the armed forces: 'the worst, the best' was the motto of the Latin American guerillas in the 1960s and 1970s, who believed they could then organise uprisings against dictatorships.

In 1973 as the Uruguayan ruling coalition rapidly eroded several political groups, leaders from the left-wing parties and respected left-wing publications hailed the military when they showed a nationalist vein promising to end corruption and a quick return to democracy, insinuating that the 1971 presidential elections had been rigged.

Speculating that fresh elections would be called, many political groups supported the coup with their silence and inactivity. However the following day the military were after the alleged 'left-wing' supporters; they were to stay in office until 1984.

In a few months the military rapidly eliminated the remnants of the urban guerrilla movement called Tupamaros and caught most leaders of the communist and other radical organisations, whom they considered enemies of the 'fatherland'. Most of them were tortured, jailed and in some cases made to disappear.

In the early 1980s when the tide was turning for military regimes in South America, representatives from Uruguayan political parties began negotiations with the Army for a return to democracy. Following two years of negotiations an understanding was reached which included a matching amnesty for guerrillas and supporters and military and police officers allegedly involved in human rights abuses.

The participants in the negotiations included representatives from the left-leaning Broad Front coalition currently in office, and as agreed the first bill to be approved by the new Congress (March 1985) was an amnesty for all urban guerrillas and supporters, even those involved in blood crimes.

However there was resistance to extending the same benefits to the military and police forces and it was only reached after much negotiations in 1986, with the name of Ley de Caducidad de la Pretensi˘n Punitiva del Estado.

The 1986 Amnesty Law was ratified in two referendums in 1989 and 2009. An attempt to annul its effects was narrowly defeated in Congress in May 2011.

That month the Uruguayan Supreme Court concluded that two former military officials could not be charged with enforced disappearances because the crime was not incorporated into domestic law until 2006 and there could be no retroactive application. They were instead convicted of 'aggravated murder', an ordinary criminal offence.

Treating human rights violations committed during the military government as ordinary criminal offences rather than crimes against humanity meant that the cases were subject to a statute of limitations, which would have expired on 1 November. The new law removes this limitation.

The bill passed both houses of Congress with minimal vote difference, with the support of the ruling coalition. - MercoPress                  

*Third World Resurgence No. 254, October 2011, pp 38-39