Former Argentine navy officers Jorge Acosta (L) and Alfredo Astiz (2nd R) and other members of Argentina's Naval Mechanics School, known as the ESMA, attend the sentence hearing of the five-year trial for their role during the 1976-1983 dictatorship in Buenos Aires. File picture: Marcos Brindicci/Reuters
Former Argentine navy officers Jorge Acosta (L) and Alfredo Astiz (2nd R) and other members of Argentina's Naval Mechanics School, known as the ESMA, attend the sentence hearing of the five-year trial for their role during the 1976-1983 dictatorship in Buenos Aires. File picture: Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

SA can learn from Argentina's quest for justice against 'dirty war' torturers

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jul 15, 2020

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Who would have ever thought that the man who presided over the worst torture centre of Argentina’s military dictatorship would have been posted to Argentina’s embassy in Pretoria at the height of apartheid in 1979?

Vice-Admiral Ruben Chamorro was chief of the notorious Argentinian torture centre ESMA (Navy School of Mechanics) responsible for over 4 000 death flights where thousands of political dissidents were drugged and dropped by planes into the sea. Those bodies which disappeared are part of what is called “the missing”.

Chamorro was sent to the embassy in South Africa as military attache in 1979, a month before the SADF began its own death flights. Chamorro was followed by Captain Alfredo Astiz, who was also known as the “Blond Angel of Death” who was also posted to the embassy in Pretoria, and was the most notorious torturer of Argentina’s “dirty war”.

A total of four torture experts were attached to the Argentinian embassy in South Africa.

The collusion of Argentinian generals and apartheid’s top brass is well documented, particularly the training of apartheid military officers in torture tactics at secret bases in what was then South West Africa.

There were several seminars at which the Argentinians and the South African security branch exchanged methods of interrogation.

This is the subject of a soon-to-be-released book by Michael Schmidt called Death Flight, which documents how a highly clandestine unit called Delta 40 copied the example of their Argentinian counterparts and did the dirty work of disposing of hundreds of ANC, PAC, and Swapo activists by drugging them and throwing their bodies into the Atlantic ocean.

The military dictatorship in Argentina which lasted from 1976-1983 hunted down left-wing activists and political opponents, brutally tortured them and tens of thousands of civilians were killed and never seen again. By the end of the eight-year dictatorship, 60 000 Argentinians had been killed, 30 000 disappeared and 400 000 jailed.

The difference between what has happened in Argentina and what has happened in South Africa is that the perpetrators of these crimes in Argentina have been prosecuted; in South Africa they have not.

In 2005 Astiz was prosecuted on charges of kidnapping, torture and murder, and together with others who had been associated with ESMA was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in Argentina for crimes against humanity in October 2011. Before Chamorro could be prosecuted for his crimes he died of a heart attack in 1986.

He had, however, been under arrest since 1984, and was among at least 100 military or police officers accused of committing human rights violations during the former military dictatorship.

In South Africa those responsible for the SADF’s death flights did not apply for amnesty during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and have never been prosecuted for their crimes against humanity, as their Argentinian counterparts have. Neither have torturers of South African detainees been prosecuted despite the fact they never applied for amnesty.

This is the focus of this three-part series which looks at what South Africa can learn from Argentina in terms of transitional justice, as Argentina has been a beacon of progress in terms of its quest for justice, in a region where many of the perpetrators of such gross violations of human rights have never been held accountable.

* Read part two

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

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