Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

HUMAN RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Reviving the Concept of Due Obedience’

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 2 2007 (IPS) - A former head of naval operations during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship admitted in court that he had signed written instructions for “the physical elimination” of subversives, who would be thrown from planes in mid-flight “alive but drugged.”

Retired vice admiral Luis María Mendía, who was chief of naval operations from 1976 to 1979, accepted responsibility Thursday for the infamous “death flights”, in which political prisoners were dumped alive into the sea.

According to human rights groups, a total of 30,000 leftists and others fell victim to forced disappearance under the de facto regime.

Mendía testified before federal Judge Sergio Torres, who placed him under house arrest last year in a case involving the notorious Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), which functioned as the biggest clandestine detention and torture centre during the dictatorship. An estimated 5,000 political prisoners were held there, most of whom have never reappeared.

The Foreign Ministry’s special representative for human rights, Horacio Méndez Carreras, who has served as lawyer for the families of French citizens “disappeared” in Argentina, said Mendía was “an ideologue of state terrorism” who “indoctrinated young officers” in the Navy.

According to the testimony of former navy captain Adolfo Scilingo, whose accounts of the “death flights” shocked the world in 1995, Mendía had called together all of the navy officers in 1975 in a movie theatre in Puerto Belgrano, a naval base in Buenos Aires province, to inform them of a plan for “the extermination of unpatriotic subversives.”

The plan, which as he admitted Thursday carried his signature, was titled “Argentine Navy Plan for Training Against Terrorist Insurgency”.

As Scilingo also testified before a judge in Spain who sentenced him to 640 years in prison in 2005, Mendía told around 900 officers in the meeting in the cinema that to “preserve western, Christian ideologyàintense interrogations” would be carried out, as well as “the practice of torture and a system of physical elimination using planes from which the live but drugged bodies would be thrown out in mid-flight, thus giving them a ‘Christian death’.”

Along with members of the dictatorship’s junta and other high-level armed forces officers, Mendía was tried two decades ago for human rights violations committed in ESMA. But like the other officers, he was pardoned in 1989 by then president Carlos Menem (1989-1999).

Lower-ranking members of the military, in the meantime, were left off the hook in 1986 and 1987 by two amnesty laws, which were eventually struck down in 2005, leading to the reopening of cases, including the ESMA case and the prosecution of Mendía on new charges.

“The diatribes should have been directed at me, and not at the young officers who faithfully followed my orders,” the 82-year-old retired vice admiral said Thursday, three decades after the crimes for which he is being tried. “Many of my subordinates are under arrest today in an absolutely unjust and illegal manner.”

The officers he commanded “fought with abnegation, courage, bravery, subordination and heroism during the eight years of war against subversive, terrorist organisations, and at no time did they go beyond the orders received from the chiefs of staff, which were faithfully followed,” he said.

But Mendía had kept silent in 1995 when Scilingo accused him in interviews with local journalist Horacio Verbitsky, which were published in the book “El Vuelo” (The Flight).

Since the human rights cases have begun to reopen in the wake of the overturning of the amnesty laws, survivors of the “dirty war” point to a shift in strategy on the part of senior military officers, aimed at freeing lower-ranking members of the armed forces who are now being arrested and brought to trial.

“Mendía’s declaration provides conclusive evidence that genocide existed,” ESMA survivor Enrique Fukman told IPS. “We have always sustained that there were no excesses, but that higher orders were in fact being followed. However, they are all responsible; the reach of the trials cannot be limited” to senior officers, he argued.

Fukman was abducted in November 1978 in Buenos Aires and held at ESMA until February 1980. “One day in January 1979, around 40 ‘compañeros’ who were being held in ‘capucha’ (in cells where they wore hoods) were transferred to the death flights,” he recalled.

In his testimony, Mendía argued that the principle of “due obedience” reigned in the Navy, and said “the officers and non-commissioned officers were unjustifiably scapegoated, because they were very young and were following orders given by admirals who assumed complete responsibility in giving those orders.”

The idea of “due obedience” was imposed by the military on the democratically elected government of Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989) after the dictatorship’s former junta members were tried in 1985.

The armed forces were demanding an end to the trials of subordinate officers, non-commissioned officers and members of the rank and file, arguing that they were only following orders – a concept that formed the basis of one of the two amnesty laws.

In 1987, the “due obedience” law put an end to prosecutions against thousands of lower-ranking members of the armed forces.

But the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 2005, based on international legal conventions signed by Argentina, according to which crimes against humanity are subject to no statute of limitations and cannot be amnestied.

Another strategy by the military that is apparently taking shape is to spread the blame around, by accusing France, for example, of lending the dictatorship intelligence agents, and implicating the overthrown government of Estela “Isabelita” Martínez de Perón (1974-1976), the widow of strongman Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974).

Martínez was arrested in Spain in January on the orders of a federal judge in Argentina who is investigating her responsibility for the actions of the “Triple A”, a death squad that killed leftists and others opposed to her government.

“The armed forces rigorously applied legislation in force at the time,” said Mendía, referring to decrees issued in 1975 that ordered “the annihilation of subversive action.” But he did not explain why the 1976 coup d’etat was carried out if it was only a question of following decrees handed down in 1975.

Mendía asked the courts to take witness statements from those who governed France at the time, and to seek the arrest of a French citizen who, he said, took part in the abduction of two French nuns – crimes that are included in the ESMA case.

That same version was given in January by former navy captain Alfredo Astiz, sentenced in absentia in France for the murders of French nuns Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet, and accused of a number of other human rights violations.

“It looks like they are trying to revive the idea of due obedience in order to let the subordinate officers off the hook, while at the same time justifying what they did as falling within a supposed legal framework,” Graciela Daleo, another ESMA survivor, who was held there from October 1977 to January 1979, told IPS.

In her view, these tardy accusations against the government of Martínez and against France reflect an attempt to dilute the blame for the regime’s human rights crimes.

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