Argentina tackles 'dirty war' crimes at epic trial

3 min

A massive trial of crimes committed by Argentina’s 1976-1983 military junta will begin in the capital Buenos Aires on Wednesday. Sixty-eight defendants charged in some 800 cases will be judged in a trial that is expected to last two years.


The biggest trial of human rights abuses in the history of Argentina is opening in the capital Buenos Aires on Wednesday. The case, which counts 68 defendants facing close to 800 charges for crimes committed during the country’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, could last up to two years.

It will focus on the killings, torture and rapes committed at the infamous ESMA Naval Mechanics School, where some 5,000 people were sent as part of the junta’s “dirty war” on its opponents.

The case has recognised 789 victims, and will consider testimony from around 900 witnesses.

The notorious “death flights”, the practice of throwing heavily sedated prisoners into the sea from airplanes, will also figure prominently in the trial.

The defendants include 56 ex-navy personnel, three former federal policemen, five high-ranking junta officers and two civilians.

“The fact that civilians will be tried is very important," said Silvina Stirnemann, a spokeswoman for HIJOS-Paris, a French organisation that seeks justice for the victims of Argentina’s notorious military junta.

“The judiciary is begging to look beyond the army. Without civilian accomplices the dictatorship’s repression could not have reached such magnitude,” Stirnemann added.

Among the accused are also high-profile figures who are already serving life sentences in jail.

Jorge Eduardo Acosta, Alfredo Astiz and Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, former Argentinian navy officers, are defendants in the new trial, though they have already been convicted of murder and kidnapping in recent years.

'Death flight' victims

Activists hope the trial will shed new light on the “death flights”, a practice that remained wrapped in secrecy for years after the fall of the junta.

“The first time the existence of death flights was recognised was when Adolfo Scilingo, a former ESMA officer, admitted he had taken part in them during a 1995 interview,” said Stirnemann, "Before then, nobody believed the ex-detainees when they spoke about it.”

Further evidence of the death flights emerged in 2011, after Uruguay released previously classified photographs from its defence department. The 130 stills showed corpses of Argentina’s “death flight” victims – their hands and feet bound - which washed up ashore in neighbouring Uruguay.

Since 2005, when Argentina's Supreme Court declared that laws granting amnesty for atrocities committed during the past dictatorship were unconstitutional, the country has slowly been delivering justice to countless victims of kidnap, torture and murder.

According to human rights groups, as many as 30,000 disappeared during the dictatorship. The Paris-based HIJOS says some 500 children were also forcibly taken away from their families.

“Our country still bears the scars of the time,” said Stirnemann. “Such trials allow Argentina to gradually transform the pain of that era into a chapter of its history.”

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