'Dirty war' suspect faces trial in Spain

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The Independent Online

Mexico's supreme Court has agreed in a landmark ruling to extradite to Spain one of Argentina's most notorious torturers on charges of genocide and terrorism.

Ricardo Cavallo was an officer at Argentina's Naval Mechanics School (Esma), which was used as a clandestine torture centre during the country's "Dirty War" between 1976 and 1983, under the dictatorship of former president Galtieri.

The decision, late on Tuesday, marks a historic victory for Baltasar Garzon, the crusading Spanish magistrate who has campaigned for years for the extradition of Mr Cavallo.

The ruling means that for the first time those accused of human rights violations can be tried outside their country. Mr Cavallo will be the first Argentine former military officer to be tried abroad, unprotected by the amnesty offered by courts to those accused of repression under Galtieri's rule.

A Supreme Court official said Mr Cavallo would be sent to Spain within days. Jose Miguel Vivanco, of the US-based Human Rights Watch, said: "Mexico will become the first Latin American country to extradite someone for gross human rights violations under the principle of universal jurisdiction." He called the ruling "a real victory for international justice".

Judge Garzon earned worldwide fame and transformed the international climate of human rights law by seeking the extradition of General Augusto Pinochet, although his effort failed when Britain freed the former Chilean dictator because of his ill-health. The judge requested Mr Cavallo's extradition on charges of torture, terrorism and genocide.

He is accused of 350 human rights crimes. The indictment against him drawn up by Judge Garzon says he was involved in 246 kidnappings - whose victims disappeared for ever - and more than 100 cases of torture. At least 16 of the many babies stolen from prisoners and handed to families sympathetic to the military passed through Mr Cavallo's hands, the indictment says.

Oswaldo Caldu, an Argentine former activist in Mexico, said: "It's an historic ruling that opens the doors for starting proceedings against criminals who have enjoyed total impunity and have mocked justice."

Mexico resolved to extradite Mr Cavallo last year but his lawyers obtained a stay while they appealed. That appealfailed and the issue cannot be the subject of a further appeal. The decision gives the green light for the extradition to a third country of suspects who enjoy immunity in their homelands.

Mr Cavallo, who had lived quietly in Mexico for years, was detained in 2000 in the resort of Cancun, while he was bound for Argentina.

The arrest was made after a Mexican newspaper accused him of being a former dirty war agent known as Serpico. But the Supreme Court judges threw out the charge of torture, arguing that it exceeded the statute of limitation.

Up to 30,000 people died or disappeared under General Galtieri's dictatorship. Many were tortured, drugged and thrown from aircraft into the river Plate.