Death flights carried out by senior South African military counter-intelligence operatives between 1979 and 1987 were revealed at the Wouter Basson trial. File picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency/ANA
Death flights carried out by senior South African military counter-intelligence operatives between 1979 and 1987 were revealed at the Wouter Basson trial. File picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency/ANA

It is never too late to charge perpetrators for their crimes against humanity

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jul 17, 2020

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Operation Condor was the name given to the infamous campaign of torture and murder carried out by military dictatorships in Latin American in the 1970s and 1980s.

The military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Bolivia had colluded in hunting down left-wing activists and political opponents in a campaign backed by the US to prevent the emergence of democratic governments with social democratic or left-wing programmes that could threaten capitalist interests.

Workers, students, artists and mothers comprised the bulk of victims who were brutalised and disposed of in a diabolical campaign of terror that ravaged the continent.

But it was in Argentina that there has been a reckoning for those who thought they could mete out such brutality with impunity. It may have taken over two decades for the wheels of justice to turn, but they are indeed turning, and showing the world it is never too late to charge perpetrators for their crimes against humanity, even if the individuals are now in their nineties.

Since the Argentinian Congress revoked the amnesty laws in 2003, 2979 perpetrators of crimes during the military dictatorship have been charged, 1038 detained, while 499 are awaiting sentencing. A total of 599 perpetrators have died, and more than half the prisoners - 549 - are under house arrest.

Argentina has shown the political will to bring about a process of truth and justice, and gone as far as creating a special Office of Prosecutions for Crimes Against Humanity.

This is an example for humanity, as there is no other similar case of transitional justice in the world. In most cases, the defendants in Argentina are over 80 years old, and there is a broad consensus across government that it is important that the accused do not die before justice is served.

In the case of South Africa, the liberation movements showed great magnanimity by agreeing to allow the perpetrators of similar brutality under successive apartheid regimes to receive amnesty if they fully disclosed their crimes at the TRC.

While many did come forward and admit to their crimes, there were rarely full disclosures, and far too many ­senior members of the military and police failed to apply for amnesty, believing they would never be found or prosecuted.

While those responsible for Argentina’s death flights are sitting in jail, those South African officers and generals trained in such tactics by the Argentinians remain free.

According to Michael Schmidt’s new book Death Flight, the death flights carried out by senior South African military counter-intelligence operatives between 1979 and 1987 were never raised at the TRC, but came out at the Wouter Basson trial.

Schmidt’s research suggests that over the 8½ years that the death flights took place, an estimated 420 members of Swapo, the ANC and PAC were first poisoned and then flown in a small plane and their bodies dumped off the Skeleton Coast in the Atlantic Ocean.

The families of the victims have never heard the truth regarding the deaths of their loved ones, and no one has been held accountable.

After hearing testimony in the Basson trial in May 2000, Judge Willie Hartzenberg ruled that the death flights did occur.

Jan Theron was a former special forces colonel, and testified at the Basson trial that he and General Fritz Loots decided there were too many Swapo guerrillas in the prison camps and that they posed a “security risk”.

The paramilitary police had then begun delivering the prisoners to him for execution. The prisoners were injected with muscle relaxant until they suffocated. Theron said that they must have killed hundreds in that way.

According to Schmidt, the South African special forces officers involved in the death flights were told by their Argentinian mentors to avoid the problems they had been having with their death flights, which were going on at the same time.

Many of the bodies were being washed ashore in Argentine beach resorts. They advised the South Africans to take greater precautions and take the ocean currents into consideration. Theron testified that after killing the prisoners they had decided to dump them 100 miles offshore, so that they did not wash back onto the land.

Theron was not granted indemnity from prosecution in the Basson trial. Following that trial, Theron went into hiding for two decades, until he was found by Schmidt, who interviewed him for his soon-to-be-released book.

Just as the families of thousands of victims of death flights in Argentina have demanded justice for their loved ones, the families of the more than 420 death flights’ victims of South African special forces deserve justice for their loved ones. To date, only one apartheid commander has been successfully prosecuted for his crimes against humanity: Eugene de Kock.

For too long the justice system has protected the perpetrators of crimes against humanity perpetrated in the 1970s and 1980s.

It is time that we take a leaf out of Argentina’s book and start a serious attempt at prosecuting the guilty.

Maybe the establishment of a special Prosecutions Office for Crimes Against Humanity, modelled on that in Argentina, would be a start.

* This is part 3 of a three-part series which looks at what South Africa can learn from Argentina in terms of transitional justice. Read part 1  here and part 2  here.

** Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor.

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