Ortigoza, Paraguay's 'Mandela', dies aged 73

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The Independent US

Latin America's longest-serving political prisoner, Napoleón Ortigoza, aformer Paraguayan army captain who became a symbol of opposition to military rule, has died of heart failure at 73.

Although he became an international cause célèbre from the 1960s, his death on Tuesday passed almost unnoticed outside Paraguay. Ortigoza spent 25 years in solitary confinement in a tiny, windowless cell in a top-security prison, on a trumped-up murder charge laid by dictator General Alfredo Strössner in 1962, when Ortigoza was 30.

In fact, he had merely resisted the general's efforts to enlist him into his all-powerful political party, the National Republican Association, widely known as the Colorado Party. "Paraguay and all of Latin America is in mourning," Dr Martín Almada, a fellow dissident in the Strössner years, said. "Captain Ortigoza died for an ideal and for that he'll be remembered in Paraguayan history. The real crooks and assassins in the military remain free, claiming their salaries or pensions and were never tried for their crimes."

Professor Luis Alfonso Resk, a human rights activist, spent three months in prison with the captain, suffering daily torture, before Ortigoza was placed in solitary confinement. He said: "He was an example to military men. He was honest. His legacy is one of firmness, that the struggle must continue, that we must never go through that again."

General Strössner, now 93 and in exile in Brazil, has applied to return home. As with General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, many Paraguayans, disillusioned with economic hardship, still consider General Strössner a saviour.

Ortigoza's ordeal ended in 1987 when world pressure from Amnesty International and others forced his release. But General Strössner banished him to a remote town and kept him under house arrest, "out of fear that his mental instability could lead him to commit crazy acts, and at the request of his mother and children". His family denied making any such request.

But Ortigoza escaped in the boot of a car the following year, reached the Colombian embassy in the capital, Asunción, despite being shot at by police , and was eventually allowed to flee to Spain in 1988.

After General Strössner was overthrown by a coup in 1989, Ortigoza returned but never recovered from physical and psychological torture.

He had been accused of conspiring against the general and the murder of a military cadet who had got wind of the plot. The cadet, Alberto Anastacio Benítez, was found hanged from a tree. Under torture, he confessed to murder and was sentenced to death.

That was reduced to 25 years in prison after a Spanish Franciscan priest, José Arketta, threatened to reveal confessional conversations with army officers. He said they cleared Ortigoza and implicated pro-Strössner officers in killing the cadet.

Although Ortigoza was officially cleared and awarded $1m compensation he turned his back on fame and lived quietly.