The Guardian 7 September, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Washing the dirty war’s linen

Last week, I dealt briefly with the efforts of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón to extradite the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from Britain in 1998. The Blair government, as you will recall, rejected the extradition request in 2000, and Pinochet, like virtually all of the Latin American butchers, went free.

This week we’ll take a look at the seven-year "dirty war" in Argentina, another war waged by a fascist military dictatorship against the people. And here, too, Judge Garzón has a role to play.

In April of this year, the Spanish High Court found Adolfo Scilingo, 58, a former Argentine naval officer, guilty of the illegal detention, torture and murder of civilian opponents of the military junta in the mid-1970s.

In May of this year, Ricardo Oliveros, a former Argentine army intelligence officer who lives in Spain, gave lengthy testimony before a Spanish judge in the same High Court where Scilingo was tried. Like Scilingo, Oliveros testified to crimes against humanity committed during Argentina’s "dirty war" 30 years ago.

Later this year, or possibly early next year, another former Argentine Naval officer, Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, who was extradited from Mexico to Spain two years ago, will go on trial charged with genocide and terrorism. Cavallo served at the notorious Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA) in Buenos Aires, one of 250 clandestine torture centres operated by the military junta in the 1970s.

And Judge Baltasar Garzón? He is the head of the court where these cases are being heard.

The cases are lifting the legal lid off the fascist regime imposed by the Argentine military and its corporate backers (not to mention its other backer, the US government).

Human rights groups believe about 30,000 people were murdered in Argentina by the junta. The Argentine Truth Commission’s 1984 report Nunca Mas (Never Again) found evidence of 8961 people who simply disappeared (the desaparecidos).

Certainly tens of thousands of the opponents of the military government were killed, mostly after unspeakable torture meted out in centres like ESMA.

Adolfo Scilingo testified that, from ESMA alone, between 15 and 20 prisoners were taken to the airport every Wednesday for at least two years. There the drugged prisoners were loaded onto Navy or Coast Guard planes and flown out over the ocean or the Rio de la Plata.

Once over open water, the prisoners were stripped and thrown — alive — from the back of the plane. People were not encouraged to ask too many questions when any of these broken bodies washed ashore on the Uruguayan coast.

One who did ask was the writer Rodolfo Walsh, whose "Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta" charged that mutilated bodies that had washed up on the shore between March and October 1976 had been tortured.

Walsh was himself murdered in March the following year.

Scilingo’s testimony has been corroborated by other officers, among them Victor Armando Ibanez, a sergeant in the Argentine Army.

Most of the people sought by the Spanish courts are safe so long as they stay in Argentina, which refuses to extradite them. This includes people like former naval officer Alfredo Astiz, another member of the "task force" at the ESMA, convicted in absentia in France 15 years ago for his role in the kidnapping, torture and murder of two French nuns.

Debra Watson of World Socialist Web Site reports that the nuns were "part of a group of 11 women killed for attempting to compile lists of the disappeared at the beginning of the organisation of what became the famous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Astiz was sentenced to life, but remains free within the protective borders of Argentina."

Unlike their French counterparts, Spanish courts cannot carry out trials in absentia.

The Vatican, of course, was not behindhand in supporting the junta’s extermination of leftists. Scilingo told the court that the clergy deemed the death flights, which were designed to cover up the mass murder by disposing of the bodies, a humane method of execution.

"Pio Laghi was the papal nuncio to Argentina in the 1970s", writes Debra Watson. "During the Argentine repression, he was a tennis partner with Admiral Massera, one of the principal architects of the terror."

Watson also links current top US officials to the repression in Argentina.

"Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held the same position in 1976, overseeing the collaboration between the Pentagon and the Argentine military’s repressive apparatus. Vice President Dick Cheney, meanwhile, was White House chief of staff."

Last year, Argentinean journalist Mario Pedestal, his camerawoman Mariana Veronica Cabrera, and their Iraqi driver were killed in a road accident on the way to Baghdad when a tyre blew out.

"Pedestal had told colleagues that he was determined to find a group of Argentine ‘dirty war’ veterans who had been hired by private security firms contracted by [US Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld."

Lucky break for Rumsfeld, that tyre blowing out, eh?

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