Argentinian accused of Dirty War murders of political prisoners goes on trial in Spain

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The Independent US

An Argentine former navy captain, haggard and weak after a month on hunger strike, went on trial yesterday in Spain, accused of pushing drugged political prisoners out of planes in the Dirty War pursued by Argentina's military government.

An Argentine former navy captain, haggard and weak after a month on hunger strike, went on trial yesterday in Spain, accused of pushing drugged political prisoners out of planes in the Dirty War pursued by Argentina's military government.

Spain's first trial of a foreign national for a crime against humanity committed elsewhere saw a visibly frail Adolfo Scilingo enter the court in a wheelchair.

Throughout Argentina's dictatorships between 1976 and 1983, rumours emerged of bloated corpses washing up in the River Plate. But not until 1995, when Mr Scilingo confessed to having participated in this macabre system for liquidating opponents, could bereaved relatives demand the truth about their "disappeared".

The so-called " vuelos de la muerte" (flights of death) saw military officers take political dissidents up in light aircraft, drug them, strip them and throw them semi-conscious into the sea.

The trial crowns years of effort by the crusading Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon to bring torturers and killers to justice anywhere in the world.

Mr Scilingo told a Buenos Aires newspaper in 1995: "We were convinced these people were subversives. Now I know they were human beings."

In 1997, Mr Scilingo travelled to Madrid and testified before Judge Garzon, but later withdrew his confession.

Spanish prosecutors accuse him of 30 assassinations, 93 charges of beating, 255 acts of terrorism and 286 acts of torture. Up to 140 witnesses are being called to testify, including 21 survivors of Argentina's notorious clandestine detention centre north of Buenos Aires, the Naval Mechanics School, known as Esma.

Some 5,000 opponents of the generals passed through the sinister Esma, of whom barely a hundred survived, human rights groups say. Pregnant detainees were permitted to give birth before being executed, so that their babies could be kidnapped and handed to military families, in a peculiarly Argentine twist to Chile's invention of "disappearing" opponents. Up to 30,000 Argentines may have disappeared.

Mr Scilingo was active in the Esma for a year in 1976, in the worst months of repression after Rafael Videla's military coup. Protected by Argentina's amnesty laws passed after the dictatorship ended, Mr Scilingo became renowned as the first military officer to speak publicly and in detail about the crimes.

He told Argentine journalists in the 1990s that up to 2,000 people were tossed alive into the Atlantic from death flights, 15 or 20 at a time, every Wednesday for two years. He revealed that two French nuns, Alice Domon, and Leonie Duquet, who disappeared in December 1977, were dropped, anaesthetised, from a death flight over the Tigre delta, a popular leisure haunt. Mr Scilingo said his confessions were therapy for him, a means of exorcising his horror.

Invited on to a Spanish television show, Mr Scilingo arrived in Spain in 1997. Hours later, he told Judge Garzon he had taken part in the death flights and thrown 30 people into the sea. He was detained, but later recanted and tried to sue Judge Garzon for unlawful detention.

Mr Scilingo arrived in court yesterday bundled up in clothes and looking feeble, following a hunger strike that he began last month. Doctors interrupted proceedings briefly but considered him well enough to plead.

Judge Garzon will not be presiding over Mr Scilingo's trial. He has taken nine months study leave in the US.

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