BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Eight former members of Argentina’s security forces have been convicted of crimes against humanity for their role in serious human rights abuses at a clandestine detention center during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.
The men were found guilty of crimes including torture, murder and taking children from their parents. As he read their sentences out over a live video call, Judge Daniel Horacio Obligado said that the offences were aggravated by the fact that the perpetrators were public officials, the victims were politically persecuted, and by the level of violence involved. The court rejected claims by the prosecution that the crimes in question constituted genocide.
The trial was the fourth in a series of cases relating to the infamous clandestine detention center in the Navy Mechanics School (or ESMA, by its Argentine initials), where those the military junta suspected of being “enemies of the state” were detained, tortured, and killed. Today, the ESMA building has been converted into a museum of human rights.
“This is progress towards justice,” said Sol Hourcade, a lawyer for human rights NGO, the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), which is representing several of the victims’ families. “It adds to what we know about the extent of state terrorism. None of the guilty parties had been convicted of crimes against humanity before.”
Former police officer Raúl Armando Cabral, army intelligence agent Miguel Conde and navy official Mario Castellví were sentenced to life imprisonment. Former members of the Argentine navy Carlos Néstor Carillo, José Ángel Iturri, Jorge Luis María Ocaranza and Ramón Roque Ocaranza were sentenced to 15 years in prison as secondary participants.
Claudio Vallejos, who was in the marine infantry, was sentenced to six years on charges related to the kidnapping of Argentina’s ambassador to Venezuela at the time, but the court ruled that he had already served his sentence in pre-trial detention.
Arguments from the defendants’ lawyers that the case was unconstitutional because of previous amnesty provisions and the time limit for prosecuting cases had expired were rejected by the court.
It’s estimated that up to 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared during Argentina’s last dictatorship, tactics also known as the “Dirty War.” The victims were often buried in unmarked mass graves or loaded into planes and thrown into the La Plata river on “death flights,” sometimes when they were still alive. In many cases, the bodies were never found and remain missing to this day.
The babies of women who gave birth in detention were taken from them and given to families sympathetic to the dictatorship.
“The term ‘enemy’ that was used in state terrorism, used by the navy, was very broad and lax,” Hourcade told VICE World News. “It included political activists, but also student activists, workers, journalists… the spectrum of victims is enormous. It was generalized persecution against the civilian population.”
This trial, which lasted for two and a half years, examined the cases of 816 victims. The sentence will have to be confirmed by Argentina’s Court of Appeals and Supreme Court before it is finalized. The former officers are currently in pre-trial detention.
Hourcade and other groups representing the victims hope it will be possible to secure life sentences for the four men who were sentenced to 15 years as secondary participants, arguing that they bear direct responsibility. “We had also asked for them to be convicted of crimes of a sexual nature committed in the ESMA clandestine detention center, and that was not received by the tribunal,” Hourcade said.
“Eight perpetrators of genocide were convicted for the first time, almost 45 years after the genocidal coup,” tweeted H.I.J.O.S, a human rights organization formed by the children of the dictatorship’s victims. “The only place for those who commit genocide is in a common prison!”