Belgrano families lose court claim for compensation

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The Independent Online

The families of Argentinian sailors killed when the General Belgrano was sunk during the Falklands war failed yesterday in their legal claim for Britain to pay compensation.

The families of Argentinian sailors killed when the General Belgrano was sunk during the Falklands war failed yesterday in their legal claim for Britain to pay compensation.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that it was too late for relatives to bring the case and as a result their claim was judged inadmissible. The decision spares Britain having to mount a defence to the claim and will avert the diplomatic difficulties a court case would almost certainly have raised.

The sinking of the Belgrano in May 1982 remains one of the most controversial aspects of the Falklands conflict: more than 300 members of the crew died when the submarine Conqueror torpedoed it.

Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, defended the decision to sink the vessel and dismissed claims that it was outside and heading away from a 200-mile exclusion zone which had been imposed around the Falklands by the British.

Relatives of the dead have claimed that the action was designed to scuttle the possibility of peace talks and to enhance Baroness Thatcher's popularity at home. The Belgrano relatives have tried for the past decade to have Lady Thatcher extradited for a war-crimes trial in Argentina. Yesterday's action was brought by Luisa Diamantina Romero de Ibanez and Roberto Guillermo Rojas, who claimed that the attack on the ship had violated their sons' right to life under Article Two of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The couple's lawyers, Jorge Antonio Olivera and Jorge Appiana, said in their application that Britain violated the rules of engagement because the cruiser never entered the exclusion zone. They maintain that it was on course for Isla de los Estados and could not have been deemed to be operating in the war theatre.

But before such a claim could be tested a committee of three judges said the application had been brought too late. The judges said it should have been brought within six months of the incident or within six months of the matter being considered in a domestic court. A spokeswoman for the court said this requirement fulfilled a rule that said cases can only be considered in Strasbourg once domestic remedies have been exhausted.

In the Belgrano affair, the spokeswoman said, the relevant date was effectively 2 May 1982, the day of the incident itself. Legal proceedings were held in Argentina and ended on 14 March this year with a ruling from the Argentine High Court of Justice of the Nation. These were not considered domestic remedies of the matter, as they were not domestic remedies within the UK.

Last night a spokesman for the Argentinian embassy in London said the case had been a private matter. "The government of Argentina has not been involved in bringing this action and has not been consulted about the mater," he said. He said he believed that people in Argentina, while having sympathy with the families, would not be very angry.

Britain and Argentina restored diplomatic relations in 1990 but Argentina has not surrendered its claim to the Falklands, occupied by Britain nearly 170 years ago.