BUENOS AIRES, Jan (IPS) – In 1995, his revelation that he helped throw political prisoners alive into the ocean from airplanes during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship shocked the world.
Nearly 10 years later, the trial of former Argentine Navy captain Adolfo Scilingo in Spain promises to become a landmark in the history of international law on crimes against humanity.
This will be the first time a former agent of the Argentine military regime is tried for “genocide”, a charge that has never been brought against any of those who took part in the “dirty war”, not even during the Buenos Aires trials of the members of the ruling junta in the mid-1980s.
(The convicted former commanders were later pardoned and released from prison in 1990-1991).
Also for the first time ever, a former Argentine military officer will be present when tried by a foreign court, which means the sentence handed down to Scilingo will actually go into effect.
In the past, former Argentine torturers have been tried and sentenced “in absentia” in France and Italy. However, the convicted men will only be put in jail if they set foot in the country where they were brought to trial.
Another first is the cooperation between the justice systems of two countries, Spain and Argentina, which are working together to try someone accused of a crime subject to universal jurisdiction.
In the trial against Scilingo, which is scheduled to begin Friday, witnesses will testify in Madrid as well as by videoconference from a courtroom in Buenos Aires, Argentine lawyer Carlos Slepoy told IPS by telephone from Spain.
Slepoy, who lives in Spain, represents the families of victims of the Argentine dictatorship in the case against Scilingo.
A decade ago, the former captain shocked public opinion in Argentina and around the world when he confessed to participating in “death flights”, during which drugged leftists and other political prisoners were stripped naked and thrown out of military aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean, as part of a strategy to “disappear” the victims.
His account was published in the book “The Flight: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior”, by Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky, who will testify in the trial.
Two amnesty laws passed in Argentina in the late 1980s, after the former junta members were tried, put a stop to prosecutions against junior officers or their subordinates, who were deemed to be “following orders” in the dirty war.
But in 1997, Scilingo travelled to Spain to provide information to prosecuting Judge Baltasar GarzÃ³n – who a year later became famous through his unsuccessful attempt to try former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet – and was arrested.
Since then, he has been unable to leave Spain, even when he was released from preventive detention for a few months.
Under Spanish law, Scilingo can be tried in Spain since some of the victims of the Argentine dictatorship were Spanish citizens, and because no legal action has been brought against him in Argentina.
Over a month ago, Scilingo went on a hunger strike to demand that he be sent back to Argentina, on the argument that Spain does not have jurisdiction to try him. But the former captain, who has lost nearly 20 kilos, will apparently have no choice but to sit in the dock Friday.
“This will be the first time that anyone will be convicted of genocide for what happened in Argentina,” said Slepoy, referring to the more than 13,000 people registered as “disappeared” by Argentina’s Human Rights Secretariat, although human rights groups put the number at around 30,000.
The case could set a precedent if Scilingo is convicted of genocide. The prosecutors in Spain are asking for 6,626 years in prison for the former officer, on charges of genocide, terrorism and torture committed under Argentina’s de facto regime.
Scilingo, who confessed to participating in two “death flights” in which “between 15 and 20 people” were dumped alive into the sea, is accused of 30 murders, 93 cases of bodily injury, 225 acts of terrorism and 286 cases of torture.
“He is considered a ‘necessary participant’ in all of the crimes committed in ESMA”, said Slepoy, referring to the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), which held the largest clandestine detention and torture centre during the de facto regime.
An estimated 5,000 political prisoners passed through ESMA’s torture camp, most of whom remain missing.
Another former Argentine naval captain, Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, is also scheduled to come to trial in Spain this year. Cavallo was arrested in Mexico in 2000 and extradited to Spain, where he remains in prison awaiting trial for crimes against humanity.
Slepoy also pointed out that in the 1990s, countries avoided working together in such trials, while in Scilingo’s case there has been “full cooperation” between the judiciaries and governments of Spain and Argentina.
In Spain, the progress has occurred under the government of socialist Prime Minister JosÃ© Luis RodrÃguez Zapatero, while in Argentina the advances have been made under centre-left President NÃ©stor Kirchner, who has thrown his full support behind measures aimed at putting an end to the impunity surrounding the human rights crimes committed during the dirty war.
He also ordered that the Navy turn ESMA over to human rights groups, in order to convert it into a “museum of remembrance”.
The Argentine federal courts, with the support of the Foreign Ministry, will open a videoconference room where more than 100 witnesses will testify in the trial.
Verbitsky will be among those who will give his testimony in Madrid, along with other Argentine activists like Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel and the president of the human rights group Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Estela de Carlotto.
The witnesses in Buenos Aires will include ESMA survivors like Miriam Lewin and Cecilia ViÃ±as, trade unionists, and human rights activists like Nora CortiÃ±as, the president of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo-Founding Line.
The Grandmothers and Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are associations of the families of victims of the dictatorship.
“This is a universal case, and this trial will mark an important route forward in the area of international law,” stressed Slepoy. “The idea that those who commit genocide cannot live in peace because wherever they go they will be tried, and that their own country cannot serve as a refuge for them either, is taking hold.”
Asked by IPS whether the trial against Scilingo was going ahead because he was not one of the dictatorship’s “fat cats”, the lawyer said the trial represented “a huge stride forward” that must be analysed in a historical context.
“A few years ago, members of the military enjoyed total impunity, but now we have found a way to advance,” he said.
In Slepoy’s view, the path forward “is not linear”, because neither “absolute” nor “ideal” results can be achieved at this time.
To illustrate, he cited the example of 89-year-old Pinochet, who ruled Chile with an iron fist from 1973 to 1990, and continues to evade justice even though he spent almost two years under house arrest in London after he was detained there in 1998, when Judge Baltasar GarzÃ³n attempted to have him extradited to Spain.
After the retired general was released in London on health grounds in 2000, he returned to Chile, where he faces trial in connection with various human rights cases, as well as secret bank accounts found in the United States, but has never been convicted.