Judge wins fight over `dirty war'

VICTORY: A former Argentine naval officer now sits in a Spanish prison, accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering hundreds of people, including several Spaniards


Tue, Jul 01, 2003 - Page 7

A former Argentine naval officer extradited from Mexico was jailed without bail on Sunday pending his trial here on charges of genocide and terrorism relating to years of Argentina's military dictatorship.

In an unusual act of international judicial cooperation, and a victory for the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, Mexico's Supreme Court ruled this month that the former officer, Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, could be extradited to Spain for crimes allegedly committed in a third country, Argentina.

Garzon failed three years ago to have General Augusto Pinochet, a former Chilean dictator, extradited to Spain on similar charges. Human-rights activists hailed the Cavallo decision as a vindication of the principle of "universal jurisdiction" for very serious crimes.

Cavallo is accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering hundreds of people, including several Spaniards, at the School of Naval Mechanics, known as ESMA, in Buenos Aires, which functioned as a clandestine torture center.

As many as 30,000 people were killed or disappeared in Argentina from 1976 to 1983, part of a policy to wipe out opposition to the military dictatorship. Many were tortured, drugged and thrown from aircraft into the River Plate or the Atlantic Ocean or buried in mass graves.

This systematic pursuit of opponents prompted the charges of genocide and terrorism, although the Mexican court ruled that Cavallo could not be tried on the charge of torture because the statute of limitations had expired.

When ordering Cavallo's imprisonment on Sunday, Garzon wrote, "All the structures of the Argentinian state were put at the service of one purpose: to end all subversion."

Outside the court, a small crowd of protesters carried banners recalling the 30,000 "disappeared" in Argentina's so-called dirty war.

On Jan, 12, 1977, Malou Cerruti watched helplessly as soldiers seized her husband, Omar Masera, from their home, along with her father, Victorio Cerruti.

"I never heard anything from them again," she said. "I found out from human-rights groups that they were in ESMA. I don't know how long they were kept there alive."

But within weeks they had signed over the family fortune, estimated then at US$10 million, to their torturers.

"Now I want Cavallo to tell us where they were killed, if they are buried in mass graves or if they were thrown out of planes," said Cerruti, one of 23 witnesses set to testify against Cavallo. "And where the money went."

Marcelo Hernandez, a left-wing activist, was kidnapped along with a colleague and benefactor, Conrado Gomez, and held at the School of Naval Mechanics for two years. He was released, but Gomez, who was forced to turn over his cars, property, race horses and cash to his torturers, was never seen by his family again.

"This is a good sign to the world," said Hernandez, who will also testify at Cavallo's trial. "But I will not sing with joy because I still have those memories -- one can never be happy again after that."